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Amy Irving in Ghosts
(Photo: Willy Somma)
Ironically, one reason why Daniel Fish's production of Ghosts is so bloodlessly minimalist might be that Fish is attempting to remind today's ticket buyers how startling Henrik Ibsen's classic work was when it premiered in 1881. Then, the playwright's insistence on stark theater realism horrified the Norwegian audiences to whom it was first presented, and reviewers of the time lambasted the playwright's unflinching depiction of a free-thinking woman and her syphilitic son. In addition to the unseemly issues that Ibsen addressed, they rejected language that eschewed the poetic and reassuring in favor of the blunt and unsettling.

Nowadays, of course, realism -- thanks in great part to Ibsen himself and the effect he had on 20th-century theater -- is old-hat. So perhaps Fish thought that something more up-to-date was needed to jolt a contemporary audience into a state of shock similar to what the play's first patrons experienced. His notion: Keep the performance almost entirely unemotional, detached, and running at a fast clip.

Whatever Fish had in mind by stripping Ghosts to its bare essentials, he has gone beyond using Lanford Wilson's perfectly acceptable and idiomatic new translation. Not that there's anything really wrong with Christine Jones's dressed-down set, a large room with greenish-blue walls and matching carpeting on which are placed only a greenish-blue chaise longue, a desk and a few chairs; in fact, there's something very right with the shadowy upstage corridor that Jones has designed and the single window upon which mood-establishing rain streams down even before the action begins.

There's also much that's right with Kaye Voyce's costumes, especially a daytime frock for Mrs. Alving (Amy Irving) that matches the one-tone decor and, for the furious Oswald (Ted Schneider), a soft yellow Norfolk jacket and coordinated loose trousers. (When Mrs. Alving spends a few minutes knitting, the yarn echoes the color scheme.) Scott Zielinski's lighting, which includes beaming harsh trapezoids on the floor, makes its points, too -- so much so that the knowledgeable fellow I took to the play said that Mrs. Alving's final collapse in one of those extreme slants of daylight reminded him of a photograph of Alla Nazimova at the same moment in one of her famed Ghosts appearances.

But if the design elements, which also involve sound designer/composer Eric Shim's minimalist contributions, have a certain eye-catching chic, that doesn't extend to what Fish and his actors have made of Ibsen's text. The Scandinavian dramatist, who felt so alienated from his countrymen that he lived as an expatriate for 27 years, wanted to use Ghosts as a wrecking ball to punch some sizable holes in middle-class Norwegian morality. To that end, he introduced Mrs. Alving as another of the women in his oeuvre whose discomfort with the status quo causes them and those around them no end of convention-shattering trouble. Having kept quiet about her philandering late husband and having lived with unrequited passion for the priggish Reverend Manders (Daniel Gerroll), Mrs. Alving discovers in the course of the play that the ghosts of her past are going to have their way with her, no matter how much effort she puts into maintaining propriety.

Her major problem comes to light when Oswald falls in love with housemaid Regina Engstrand (Lisa Demont), even though he knows he's terminally ill without knowing how he contracted the brain-eroding disease. Regina is the legal daughter of the limping -- and therefore symbolically lacking -- Jakkob Engstrand (David Patrick Kelly), who drops by Mrs. Alving's drawing-room to manipulate the occupants as much as he can through flattery and dissembling. Not so incidentally, Regina's true parentage is one of the secrets with which Helen Alving has lived. (Concidentally, this is pretty much the same secret held by the old lady played by Sian Phillips in Israel Horovitz's My Old Lady.)

As they step through these melodramatic developments, Fish's cast is uniformly insufficient. It's not so much that they rush their lines in what is now an intermissionless 90 minutes. (Ibsen wrote a three-act play.) Despite the alacrity with which Fish tells the story, this isn't quite Ghosts on amphetamines. The actors do have time to breathe between lines, but they are all but completely without affect -- and since Amy Irving in the role of Helen Alving has the most stage time, she is the most noticeably affectless. Here is a woman supposedly enraged by having to maintain appearances for some years, a woman who learns that her adored son is dying and that she might have to help him along when the time comes, yet she maintains a mannequin's stillness.

It makes sense, of course, that Irving would assume stoical poses some of the time, but her entire performance is one in which she moves about the stage with her hands quietly placed against her long skirt. When hearing guff from Reverend Manders, she raises her face -- as beautiful now as when she taunted Carrie -- to gaze toward nothing rather than at Manders. At only two moments, when she thinks Manders might acknowledge feelings for her and when she has to confront Oswald's turn for the worse, does she lose her post-modern cool. Most likely, the concept was that Mrs. Alving's prevailing sangfroid would throw these agitated moments into relief, but it doesn't work. Irving's is a by-the numbers turn that never hints at what has to be a turbulent inner life. What else makes Mrs. Alving a classic character, one whom the greatest actresses of the last 120 years have wanted to flesh out?

The four other cast members also seem to have been asked to deliver their dialogue without inflection -- as Fish had told them, 'Don't just do something, stand there.' Feet solidly planted, they face one another and speak, then move in order to alter their physical relationships, and then speak again. Daniel Gerroll's Manders, one of Ibsen's many thick-headed bourgeois gentlemen, is not so much mired in correctitude as simply uninterested and uninteresting. David Patrick Kelly lets a smile play around his lips as he fawningly gets the better of Manders, but he, too, is otherwise mundane. Lisa Demont occasionally rushes Regina's lines, a few of them in French, and plays the role with too much of a pout. The rail-thin Ted Schneider is the only one of the troupe who occasionally lets steam come out of his ears -- but, possibly in reaction to the restraint that thickens the on-stage air, his volume level seems to be more a declamatory shout than an expression of long-pent-up feelings.

When a cast is so uniformly lackluster, and particularly when usually dynamic actors like Gerroll and Kelly seem so defanged, the fault is not in our stars but in our director. In poking around for a means of revitalizing Ghosts, Fish hit on a misguided approach. The ghosts here are not the ones that ultimately leave Mrs. Alving groping on the floor with Oswald's euthanasia paraphernalia; they're the ghosts of Ibsen's unrealized drama.

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