Ghosts have haunted drama since the early days of Aeschylus. Arguably the most famous of all is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, whose appearances in Shakespeare’s tragedy change as the play moves from the traditional act 1 revenge genre to the more modern introspective mode in which it is not always easy to discern exactly what is happening in Hamlet’s mind and what is happening in objective reality.
Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts represents another radical breakthrough in the possibilities of ghostly encounters of a literary nature. What haunts the household in this classic of 19th-century realism is not so much the ghost of the dead, dissolute patriarch Captain Alving, but a multitude Family secrets buried in the bad faith and dying morals of a nefarious past.
An evening with Ibsen inevitably brings with it a reckoning with lost truth. One of the pre-eminent architects of modern drama, he updated the well-crafted play by repurposing its melodramatic plot for purposes of psychological revelation.
Bart DeLorenzo’s production of Ghosts, now at the Odyssey Theatre, opts for Richard Eyre’s version of the play, which condenses the action into just 90 minutes without an intermission. The pacing is as unrelenting as it is unforgiving without the explanatory padding to protect the characters from a direct assault on their story.
Oswald Alving (Alex Barlas), a free-thinking young artist living in Paris, has returned to Norway to live with his mother, Helene Alving (Pamela J. Gray). Restless at home, he begins an affair with young maid Regina Engstrand (Viva Hassis Gentes), whose father, Jacob (J.Stephen Brantley), a salty loser, is trying to amass money for a seafarers’ sports house he hopes to bring to his attractive daughter agrees to work there.
Regina, acting up while spitting out phrasebook French, wants nothing to do with her degenerate father. Her eyes are on Oswald, who she hopes will ask her to marry. For reasons that will become chillingly clear in due course, their closeness unnerves Mrs. Alving, who is busy making arrangements with Reverend Manders (Barry Del Sherman) for the new orphanage she is building as a memorial to her late husband.
This final act of hypocrisy is meant to intercede once and for all the ugly remnant of Captain Alvin, whose drunken philandering carried Mrs. Alving like a cross. She was advised on this path by Manders, whom she loved and for whom she wanted to leave her husband. But conventional piety urged the pastor to insist that she fulfill her conjugal duty, despite her husband’s gross display of infidelity.
Published in 1881 and first performed the following year, Ibsen’s Ghosts was notorious in its day for making hereditary syphilis a crucial element in its plot. Plagued by his father’s sins, Oswald has returned home more out of medical necessity than homesickness. Mrs. Alving wants to start over with her son, but the deceptions and compromises of her marriage refuse to rest peacefully in the grave with Captain Alving.
DeLorenzo, working with set designer Frederica Nascimento, lays out the rooms of the home so Oswald can be seen sleeping while Mrs. Alving and Manders go through the orphanage’s business details while rehashing their own intimate history.
The openness of the floorplan brings a refreshing modernity to a piece that goes beyond the division of the acts, so that everything that happens in one scene echoes in another. Ghosts is conceived as a series of intense private conversations. Characters face each other, but their listening is perhaps even more resonant than their speaking.
This quality of auditory liveliness is absent from DeLorenzo’s production. The rush to perform an already condensed version of the play overwhelms the slow, subterranean movement of understanding through which the characters go.
The acting is at its finest as Gray’s Mrs. Alving and Del Sherman’s Manders reassess the decision they made years ago to abandon their love. Ibsen filters vital exposition through their exchange. But more than that, it delivers an intellectual struggle between a woman gaining perspective and knowledge about herself and her society and a man still bound by stifling conventions.
Barlas has tremendous appeal on stage, but he fails to connect with the other actors. It’s like he’s acting for an audition. Gentes paints Regina in bold strokes, but also seems more intent on making an impression than responding to those around her, even her would-be father (who was brought into a devious, devilish life by Brantley).
Henry James, in his commentaries on Ibsen, remarked revealingly on the “extraordinary process of animation” that takes place when the playwright’s seemingly prosaic prose dramas are performed. Eleonora Duse found inspiration in the plays to create a revolution in modern drama through her art.
That glare is only flickering in this new production of Ghosts, which resorts to staging distractions at the end, perhaps to compensate for the ensemble’s misconfiguration. Under the x-ray of acting, Ghosts was intended to reveal the ways in which our actions invisibly bind us together, no matter how strenuous our denials.
Where: Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA
When: Friday, Saturday and Monday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m. (Check for exceptions.) Ends October 23.
Contact: (310) 477-2055, ext. 2 or OdysseyTheatre.com
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes
COVID-19 Safety Protocol: odysseytheatre.com/plan-your-visit/covid-protocols
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-09-13/review-ghosts-revival-odyssey-theatre Review: A striking revival of ‘Ghosts’ at the Odyssey suffers from lack of ensemble cohesion