One of the great things about the Fringe Festival is the opportunity to see independent companies perform works unlikely to be attempted by more established theater groups. This year brought two pieces I’ve long desired to see: THE MAIDS by Jean Genet and GHOST SONATA by August Strindberg.
Of course, there’s often a reason why a play is rarely attempted. Genet excessively embraced fellow Frenchman Charles Baudelaire’s command to épater le bourgeoisie (shock the middle classes). Strindberg’s later works are dense and inaccessible, their meanings opaque and open to interpretation. One can’t help but admire companies with the gumption just to stage such pieces; to do so successfully, as both have done, is even more admirable.
THE MAIDS director Francine Roussel (also French!) has presented a worthy exploration of Genet’s themes of sexuality and morality. Actors Jim Ludlum and Danny Ryan have great turns as men playing women, but not men-in-drag.
THE GHOST SONATA posed an even more difficult problem. It begins with an earnest student (Patrick Scheid) looking longingly at an aristocratic house. When an unsettling benefactor (Hugh Trimble) offers to help him enter the world for which he yearns, the student seizes the chance. But despite outward appearances, the bourgeois world is one of perfidy and pretense, with rotten values and people exemplified by a closet-dwelling mummy and a ghostly mistress.
A brief synopsis hardly captures the entrancing mystery of the play. A theatrical “sonata” of emotive movements and themes, the work is confounding but captivating; aggressively truthful in its bleak worldview. Thinking on the “paradise” he had longed for in the first scene, the student laments, “Here I saw a Colonel who was no colonel. I had a generous benefactor who was a robber and had to hang himself… Where is beauty to be found? Where do we find honor and faith? In fairytales and childish fancies. Where can I find anything that keeps its promise? Only in my own imagination.” To Strindberg even love, “the most beautiful flower of all” can be “more poisonous than any other one.” Strindberg’s condemnation ends not at the core of bourgeois society but at the center of our existential situation.
GHOST SONATA was written in the first decade of the twentieth century to be performed in the Swedish master’s aptly named Intimate Theatre in Stockholm. With its small stage and limited seats, Strindberg’s theater forced his audiences to experience his plays with propinquity unusual for the time. By forcing the audience to sit on the set and take part in some of the scenes, director Zach Trebino has recaptured this intimacy for the modern theatergoer, creating a claustrophobic intensity which helps engage us in this difficult work.
Another Strindberg play, THE CREDITORS, is also part of the Fringe, in a production by perhaps the best new(ish) company in town, the Philadelphia Artists Collective. This naturalistic play may make a more accessible introduction to Strindberg. But though neither THE MAIDS nor GHOST SONATA is fun-filled or easy play, they are worth seeing. When will you next get the chance?
by Jean Genet
Directed by Francine Roussel
Kicking Mule Theatre Company
at the Adrienne Theatre
2030 Sansom Street
September 6-9, 2012
THE GHOST SONATA
By August Strindberg
Directed by Zach Trebino
531 North 12th Street,
September 6-16, 2012