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Review: “NORWAY PLAYS: Drama Beyond Ibsen”

November 17th, 2013

Contributor Lindsay B. Davis dives into the cold waters of Scandinavian theater, discovering steamy surrealism from the post-Ibsen generation of notable playwrights. 

norway1In June 2013, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry published a Power Point deck online entitled, Norwegian Drama Now. It presents biographies of 14 chosen contemporary (some established, others up-and-coming) playwrights from Norway whom the Ministry would like to see gain international exposure. Amongst them are Maria Tryti Vennerod and Fredrik Brattberg, both previous winners of Norway’s prestigious Ibsen Award for drama. Vennerod’s More (original title: Meir) and Brattberg’s The Returning (original title: Tilbakekomstene) are part of a double bill currently running at Theater for the New City called Norway Plays: Drama Beyond Ibsen, a co-production by the Scandinavian American Theater Company (SATC) and NYC-based production company Ego Actus.

The challenge for Norwegian dramatists is not just creating universal works with global appeal beyond its country of 5 million people, but surviving comparisons to Henrik Ibsen, Norway’s hometown hero who also happens to be considered the father of modern drama and realism. The author of such classics as A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler may be dead over 100 years (he completed his last play in 1899 and died in 1906) but his works are amongst the most produced and highly regarded in the world. These are some large, Shakespearean-size Scandinavian shoes to fill.

According to longtime Norwegian arts journalist and critic Idalou Larsen, for many years Ibsen, “cast a shadow over new young Norwegian authors who had problems freeing themselves from his way of writing.” Vennerod’s and Brattberg’s one acts of approximately 60 minutes in length (performed back-to-back with one intermission) do not suffer that problem. Both break from realist conventions by way of non-linear storytelling and are influenced by their contemporary Jon Fosse, a Norwegian writer known for creating characters that partake in rhythmic, repetitious exchanges. Lineage aside, these are both plays with a distinct voice—subversive works of theater that embrace the art form for its potential as boundary transcending entertainment and social commentary.

The Returning introduces us to an attractive, middle-aged, suburban couple (Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz and Andrew Langton, referred to simply as The Mother and The Father) living in a world of parallel conversations with no connection. Mother is concerned with her knitting and Father is more focused on the neighbor’s lost dog. “I’m looking for the neighbor’s pooch,” he repeats, in one of the phrases that seem slightly lost in translation. Once the couple breaks the fourth wall in direct address to the audience, we learn they are coping with the death of their teenage son, Gustav (the very appealing Kristoffer Tonning). The comedic nature of the piece takes a while to unfold, but under Henning Hegland’s direction (founder/co-artistic director SATC) the characters find their rhythms—oddball representations of the familiar family next door.

The repetition occurs in dialogue as well as action, as Gustav “returns” again and again from his death. With each return, the parents’ reactions to seeing a bloodied son, now back from the dead, changes. From frantic concern to indifference, The Returning considers parental hysteria, suburban repression, teenage rebellion, and how relationships function in the aftermath of a perceived death, as well as the conflicting resistance and relief parents feel while thrust into an empty nest situation.

The Returning has a few swings and misses (including the distracting crocheted pieces of “food” that mom “cooks” and Gustav “eats”) but ultimately succeeds. Despite some moments that need to be pushed further in order to achieve the desired tone and its resulting commentary—something that requires a greater level of commitment from all the performers—it works well. Overall, Brattberg’s piece is astutely written, sharply drawn and effectively lands on an absurdly comedic plane of existence without too many substantial barriers to entry.

Take the jump for More…

Erik Schjerven and Christina Toth in "More." (photo: Yann Bean)

Erik Schjerven and Christina Toth in “More.” (photo: Yann Bean)

While The Returning skates the surface of the darker sides of human nature, More plunges into its depths. It is the story of Ida (Christina Toth) and Benedickte (Skyler Volpe), two young girls whose time together at a playground is going innocently enough until a game they play has deadly consequences—Benedickte drowns and Ida is arrested for the alleged murder. Was it an accident? Intentional? A willful agreement between the girls?

Set designer Starlet Jones’ iridescent blue fabric and lone slide creates a surreal outdoor landscape, which then transform into an intense interrogation room where Detectives Kristian and Rune (Chevy Kaeo Martinez and Erik Schjerven) drill Ida to admit her guilt. Worlds collide when journalists Linn (Alexandra Cohen-Spiegler) and Tormad (Ioan Ardelean) arrive, brilliantly conceived as histrionic, vaudeville-inspired circus performers in stripes and sequins. Linn and Tormad possess the intensity of bomb-sniffing dogs and a passion for performance art. “Ooh, a lesbian crime of passion!” they say, while launching into a tango or music video-inspired dance routine. The antics are bizarrely satisfying and by playing up the crime as entertainment (as audiences have seen before to successful effect in the musical Chicago), at once disturbing and fun.

Toth and Volpe endow the existentially poetic parts of the text with zeal and purpose—“Steal. Murder. Burn. Whore. Rape. Pillage. Deceive. Can you comprehend how the brutality is conceived?”—and deftly handle the choreography and stage combat. Volpe is a joy to watch and Toth, with her journey back and forth between playground flashbacks and interrogation room bullying, is intensely present and convincing. She makes a wonderfully rebellious and defiant yet sympathetic, alleged criminal. The heart of the piece is the bond between the two girls and the actresses find a deep connection that keeps the believability going in this oft-surreal world.

Ioan Ardelean and Alexandra Cohen Spiegler in "More." (photo: Yann Bean)

Ioan Ardelean and Alexandra Cohen Spiegler in “More.” (photo: Yann Bean)

More’s Director Joan Kane (Artistic Director of Ego Actus who most recently directed Safe at 59e59 and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) cites surrealism and Norway itself as defining influences. “Mostly Magritte. I was lucky that there is an exhibit of his work at MoMA and spent hours in the galleries. I also looked at many paintings and photos of Norway and its landscape. What I love about directing is the chance to surround myself, drink in the text deeply and explore images that enter my mind and imagination.”

The bold break from traditional structure was also the result of Kane’s dramaturgical influence: she maneuvered parts of the script to change the sequence. While More chooses to be ambiguous in its treatment of Ida’s innocence or guilt, it is pointed in its handling of the forces that surround her in the wake of the crime (or accident.) By so boldly challenging perceptions and packing the dramatic punches, one can effectively take the trip into a dramatic landscape where dangerous things happen with childlike innocence.

NORWAY PLAYS: Drama Beyond Ibsen
Scandinavian American Theater Company
Cino Theater at Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue
Through December 1

Lindsay B. Davis is a NYC-based actress, playwright and arts/culture journalist.

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