Pernilla August and Jonas Malmsjö in Ghosts(Photo © Bengt Wanselius)
Pernilla August and Jonas Malmsjö in Ghosts
(Photo © Bengt Wanselius)
Even though Ingmar Bergman is just about to turn 85 and has declared that the Ghosts production currently at BAM for a few days is his final theater foray, there's still plenty of randy-ol'-goat in the usually dour genius. Credited with "translation [from Norwegian into Swedish], adaptation and direction," he's encouraged his five actors to maul and even mount each other more than it's likely the first cast did when the play was hot off Henrik Ibsen's desk in 1881. There was enough already going on in the script to shock the bourgeoisie in those days: groundbreaking references to syphilis, plugs for women's rights, etc. Overt sex play didn't need to be tossed into the mix.

Bergman's body of astonishing work indicates that he believes human behavior regularly incorporates sexual innuendo, and so he sees Ibsen's tormented characters as people with a difficult time keeping their hands and other body parts off of one another. His adaptation is successful in part because he brings sexual desire into the open as often as he can and -- when it makes sense to him -- as boldly as possible.

Mrs. Alving (Pernilla August), the central figure of the classic play, is concerned about her son Osvald's health and, more than that, about the lies she's fed him concerning his late father's fidelity and integrity. Nonetheless, when she converses with her ill son (played by Jonas Malmsjö), incestuous longing is implied. She also takes passionate advantage of Pastor Manders (Jan Malmsjö) with whom she almost had an affair years earlier but who now has ostensibly arrived at Rose Manor only to attend the opening of the new Alving orphanage. Manders, for his part, only realizes a few seconds after he's placed his hand on Mrs. Alving's gowned thigh that it's there and that it ought to be removed.

Osvald and the housemaid, Regine (Angela Kovács), take every opportunity they can to wrap their arms and legs around each other until they learn what has been kept from them: They share the same father. And Jacob Engstrand (Örjan Ramberg), who married Regine's mother and raised the child as his, nevertheless appears to be motivated by unnatural affections during the opening scene where he's coaxing her to leave the Alving household and work in his sailors home. It's Bergman's notion that Regine and Engstrand play much of the scene while watching their images in a mirror; in other words, there's narcissism combined with incest.

Bergman has other tricks up his sleeve, the most compelling of them involving Osvald. The director has had costume designer Anna Bergman clothe four of the characters in either greens, oranges, or browns. (The play takes place in late fall; there's a bare birch silhouetted in a tall upstage window.) Pastor Manders wears clerical purple from his shoes up. But Osvald, his face powdered white from his first entrance, sports gray shades; in Bergman's mind, it seems, the doomed young man is already a ghost. Oswald's haunting his mother, the director seems to imply, because she's haunted by the secret she has kept from him. (In Bergman's Ghosts, it's not just the mother-son attraction that's reminiscent of Shakespeare's Hamlet; apparently, the director wants to point out that, also as in the Bard's tragedy, dead fathers haunt the surroundings.) Only at the end, when Osvald strips completely naked as the day Mrs. Alving bore him, does he look alive. Of course, he's about to die.

There are myriad moments when Bergman injects rambunctiousness and eroticism into his treatment, but there are also many moments when what's going on between the characters doesn't seem to interest the director. The quintet have either been withholding truths from each other or repressing their private truths, and Ghosts takes place during the hours when what's been suppressed emerges explosively; so, possibly, the sections where Bergman couldn't see through to sexual undercurrents intrigued him less.

Often, he sits the characters down and just lets them talk away. In the first scene that Mrs. Alving and the pastor have together, they never stray from the curve-backed green sofa on which they sit; in a second scene at that same perch, Mrs. Alving rises and walks around the sofa. By then, any movement has come to feel like radical blocking. Set designer Göran Wassberg uses a turntable on which much of the furniture rests. And indeed, Mrs. Alving et al are sometimes so disinclined to ambulate that, rather than walk to the chairs, table, and sofa meant to indicate various rooms in the house, those pieces of furniture come to them via the rotating floor.

Angela Kovács and Örjan Ramberg in Ghosts(Photo © Bengt Wanselius)
Angela Kovács and Örjan Ramberg in Ghosts
(Photo © Bengt Wanselius)
The result is that, although Bergman presents a racy denouement -- at Osvald's possible demise, he and his mother appear to be reenacting his birth -- much of the play isn't as moving as it might be. It's as if Bergman attended to the play in fits and starts. If so, the lapses may suggest that his announced retirement comes at the right time; he may very well know something about himself and his interludes of artistic inspiration that no one else could be expected to know. Although he has mentioned quitting theater before and hasn't, Pernilla August, who's worked with him often, has said that she's convinced he means it this time. When Bergman said he would make no more films after Fanny and Alexander in 1984, he stuck to his silenced guns. Were he simply to devote more time to writing, the world would likely benefit.

Bergman also likes to rewrite: In translating and adapting Ghosts, he has interpolated lines from two Strindberg plays with similar themes, The Pelican and Ghost Sonata, and has slightly altered Ibsen's characterizations. Not every theatergoer will immediately detect the changes. If, however, Bergman hasn't consistently realized the immense emotional moments he planned while cutting and pasting, he does achieve many small and medium-sized emotional moments by the end of this three-act damning of family secrets and lies. (The drama is performed in two acts here.) Thanks to him and each of the actors, there's a quality of seamless realism throughout a play that was extremely important in the development of realistic dramaturgy. Pernilla August as Mrs. Alving has a way of looking at, listening to, and addressing the men crossing her threshold that says she's either taking what they say with bemused disbelief or with tamped fury. When the fury is less tamped, she also remains thoroughly believable and frightening for the depth of the psychic wounds revealed.

As Osvald, the lanky Jonas Malmsjö's has blondish-white hair that features a red streak where it's parted on the left side. Malmsjö manages to seem like unignited TNT even in his quietest, lurking moments. When he's rolling on the floor naked -- yes, there's more melodrama than drama in the action -- he's still the embodiment of prolonged anguish. Jan Malmsjö brings the right amount of confused conviction to the Pastor Manders role, which Bergman maintains he's revised. Angela Kovács as Regine -- who eventually escapes the Alvings, disillusioned but unbowed -- is flirtatious and calculating in equal measure. And Örjan Ramberg, required to work with an awkward and undoubtedly authentic leg brace, is eventually even more calculating.

Ghosts may be the last chance to see Ingmar Bergman interpret a play about people dealing with manipulated and mangled best chances.