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Henrik Ibsen + Jon Fosse: Norway Meets New York

The rarely produced Rosmersholm is paired with the contemporary play deathvariations, but neither rises above mediocrity. logo
Anna Guttormsgaard and Charles Parnell
in Rosmersholm
(© Carol Rosegg)
Although Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House get more productions than you can shake a stick at -- and Ghosts and even the well-nigh impossible Peer Gynt aren't far behind -- the same can hardly be said for Rosmersholm. The 1886 play hasn't been seen on Broadway since 1935, when it starred Eva La Galienne as Rebecca West. (Yes, this is where the famed author took her pen name.)

Well, the explanation for its infrequent staging is now at hand at 59 E 59 Theaters, where Rosmersholm is part of Henrik Ibsen + Jon Fosse: Norway Meets New York. The bottom line is that Rosmersholm looks to be a play much past its time -- if it ever truly had a time. Moreover, the cause isn't helped by Oslo Elsewhere, the group who is presenting the piece along with Fosse's contemporary play deathvariations. Indeed, the best reason to see the rarely-seen Ibsen work is that another chance may not come for 71 more years.

Undoubtedly, the best case for the Ibsen opus was made in the first quarter of the 20th Century by the then-revered but now-forgotten Minnie Maddern Fiske. A huge Ibsen supporter who appeared in five of the master's plays, she explained to Alexander Woolcott in 1917 that the pivotal role of Rebecca West requires "one of those rare artists who can put on and take off their emotions like so many bonnets." West (played here by translator-adaptor Anna Guttormsgaard) is a free-thinking but hardly free-spirited 29-year-old (or so she says), who's been trying to buck up erstwhile minister John Rosmer (Charles Parnell) after the suicide of his wife, Beth. Aside from dealing with his grief, Rosmer is casting aside his Christian beliefs for a more West-influenced universal attitude towards humanity's nobility. The radical transition puts him at odds with reactionary community-pillar, Professor Kroll (Neal Lerner), but in the same camp as controversy-stirring newspaper publisher Peter Morton (J. Paul Nicholas) and Rosmer's old mentor, Ulric Brendel (Mike Hodge).

There's heated talk about both bringing democracy to the people and conservative oppression in Rosmersholm, which has undoubtedly assured the Oslo Elsewhere folks of the play's relevance to today and the logic behind updating it. Unfortunately, the characters' convoluted psychologies don't jibe with the way people think in the contemporary world. Rather than identify with the plights faced by Rosmer and West, a modern audience will likely observe the star-crossed pair while wearing superior smiles. Long in denial about their physical attraction to one another and awfully pious when they finally admit to it, John and Rebecca take measures that nowadays are more confounding than convincing.

The dramatic and even extreme lengths to which the crusading Rebecca goes explain an actor's being drawn to her even now, and Guttormsgaard goes some way towards getting the commitment. But she's too one-note to be fully convincing. With the exception of Lizan Mitchell's feet-on-the-ground performance as housekeeper Mrs. H., the other actors are all crude bordering on amateurish. Such uniform mediocrity must be traced to Timothy Douglas' direction.

Meanwhile, the hour-long but decidedly dreary deathvariations echoes the Ibsen work by featuring another suicide where a body of water is involved. A daughter (Natalia Payne) is mourned by her mother (Diane Ciesla) and father (Dick Hughes), who recall their younger selves (Deborah Knox and David L. Townsend). The elders are trying to determine how their split may have propelled the deceased into the arms of a troubled man (Charles Borland) who represents death figuratively or literally. They all express their concerns in the sort of supposedly realistic dialogue that'll get on your last nerve. If Fosse is the contemporary Ibsen, as some claim, then Adam Sandler is this century's Spencer Tracy.

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