Ibsen in Chicago by David Grimm, Directed by Braden Abraham, 2 Feb -4 March, 2018, Seattle Rep.
Plays about plays. There are a lot of them. Actors like portraying actors, playwrights like writing about what they know, and audiences seem unbelievably tolerant of them. Noises Off, Inspecting Carol, The Beard of Avon, The African Company Presents King Richard III. Heck, add the players in Hamlet and the amateurs in Midsummer's Night Dream. The players love to talk about the art. Everyone loves a actor.
And so here. Ibsen in Chicago deals with a tiny amateur group putting together a performance of Ghosts, a banned play by Norwegian playwright. Henrik Ibsen. I have never read a lot of, nor expressed a great interest in reading a lot of, Ibsen, and was surprised to learn that the Lovely Bride had a heavy Ibsen phase (before her Bertolt Brecht phase - who knew?). Ghosts itself was a rather dour creation of a syphilitic son returning to the family manse to uncover all sorts of family secrets. It helps if you know more about Ghosts at the outset, but the play fills in all the blanks for the Ibsen novice.
Banned in its native lands, the play was first performed in Chicago in 1882. That's where this play comes in. An Ibsen-inspired bricklayer (Christopher McLinden, last seen in Charles III) puts together a rag-tag bunch of amateurs led by an aging grand dame of the Danish theatre (Kirsten Potter, Photograph 51). The team consists of an eager cobbler, a sphinx-like ingenue, a nefarious a-hole bitten by the acting bug, and a mousy prompter with a tendency to pull her own teeth out when under stress.
And the components are there - the romantic backstage triangle, the surprisingly good auditioner, the technical problems, the moral challenge of the script, and the problems with money. Add to that the change in theater itself, as the declamatory style gives way to Ibsen's more realistic approach. And the challenges of coming to a New World, while bringing along the challenges of the Old.
And they do it with gusto. This is not a farce (which some plays about plays tend towards). but rather has some depth to it. Kirsten Potter unleashes as an ACK-tor of the Carol Burnett vintage, but pivots nearly into vulnerability and personal insecurity. Allen Fitzpatrick as the nefarious Pekka is totally villainous, but wants to be part of the company. Hannah Rue as the self-contained, naturalistic Elsa feels the most real and grounded of the group, but she too carries her secrets (because what would an Ibsen play be without secrets?). In short, all are faking it until they make it, which may be the American Dream in a nutshell.
One gripe is the stage, which is a bit too large for the smaller Leo K theater. A two-level affair (which seems to be a thing this season), the upper gallery almost looms over the audience, and makes it difficult to track on actions happening on both levels at once. That aside, Ibsen purrs along neatly, the actors playing actors who are on an knife-edge between both New World and Old, and trapped mid-leap between traditional and modern theater.
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