While there are five characters in Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, a sixth man haunts the proceedings, his unseen presence felt in nearly moment of the play. To the outside world, Captain Chamberlain Alving was a scion of society — an upstanding gentleman taken far too young. To his wife, the Captain was a monster whose actions ruined generations of the family.
In Theatre Coup d'Etat's rough-but-ready production, Ibsen's sensational script threatens to blow the roof off of the ballroom at the American Swedish Institute's Turnblad Mansion. It's a happy return for Coup d'Etat, which produced Hamlet in the same space earlier this year and earned an Ivey Award for directors Peter Beard and James Napoleon Stone.
Beard returns as director here, while Stone takes on the role of Osvald Alving, the son who has spent most of the past 20 years away from the family's isolated Norwegian home. While he has arrived in part because of the upcoming dedication of an orphanage built in his father's name, Osvald also is extremely ill.
Why he is ill is one of the secrets that haunts the Alving home. While the word is never spoken, Osvald is suffering from syphilis, which will eventually drive him insane in these pre-penicillin times. He thinks the illness is the result of years he spent as a free-spirited artist in Europe, but his mother (Annette Kurek) knows better.
Ibsen's play bristles with barely controlled rage at the hypocrisy of society, embodied here by Pastor Manders (Brian Joyce). The pastor is quick to judge — even books he hasn't read — and willing to forgive sins as long as he can fit them into his male-centric worldview. Mrs. Alving has her own flaws — Ibsen isn't interested in presenting heroes and villains here — that have left wreckage behind her. It's not hard to see where her fury comes from, but she never has a chance to truly control, hone, and use it.
The quintet of actors does solid work, though Stone's sickly Osvald dominates the stage. He is not as loud as the blustery Joyce or as intense as Kurek, but his character's pain and loss slowly build through the show until its devastating end.
Kurek and Joyce spend much of the play at loggerheads, battling over long-ago decisions. Joyce balances the various sides of his character, giving us a look at the extremely insecure man hidden amid all of the proclamations about duty and God. Kurek has a tougher time with her character, and it is sometimes hard to follow where Mrs. Alving is during her journey through this long, hard night.
Some of that could be because the company as a whole seems to be playing for a much larger space than the intimate ballroom. It's a case where less would have been more. For this play and in this space, emotions played closer to the vest would have ratcheted up the intensity by several degrees — and by the final act, the play is quite intense indeed.
The space, with a set designed by Curt Pederson, is well used, making us feel like intruders into the drama playing before us rather than an audience. Much of the dressing comes from the museum itself, making the stage look like an upper-class 19th-century home haunted by its past.
That a play involving sexually transmitted diseases, hints of rape and incest, and implications of prostitution caused controversy in stiff 19th-century society isn't a surprise. That these themes are still absolutely current really isn't a shock either. We may be more frank in how we speak, but the underlying themes haven't changed. Silence and lies still poison friendships and families at every turn, and Ibsen's clear, biting, and penetrating view is timeless.
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