Randy Harrison in Ibsen's

Superb Production at Berkshire Theatre Festival

By: - Aug 17, 2009

Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts Ghosts

By Henrick Ibsen
Original Adaptation by Anders Cato and James Leverett
Directed by Anders Cato; Scenic Design, Lee Savage; Costume Design, Olivera Gajic; Lighting Designer, Tyler Micoleau; Resident Composer/ Sound Designer, Scott Killian; Dramaturg, James Leverett; Assistant to the Director, Julia Harman Cain.
Cast: David Adkins (Pastor Manders), Mia Dillon (Helene Alving), Johnathan Epstein (Engrstrand), Tara Franklin (Regine Engstrand), Randy Harrison (Osvald Alving)
Berkshire Theatre Festival
Main Stage
Stockbridge, Mass.
August 12 to 29, 2009

The Berkshire Theatre Festival's production of Henrick Ibsen's "Ghosts" is as good as it gets. All of the elements come together- a brilliant cast, fluid new adaptation of the 1881 text, precise directing, perfect costumes, a stark and insightful set- to cohere as one of the best main stage productions of the Berkshire theatre season.

With its intense psychological focus, skewering of religion and social hypocrisy, and the unspoken stigma of congenital syphilis, Ibsen's "Ghosts" represents a daunting evening of theatre. It is a credit to the directing of Anders Cato, and a revised text that falls well on contemporary ears, that we were on the edge of our seats with never a lull or lapse.

From the first moments of the play this production looked and felt right. There is an austerity and restraint of emotion that is a paradigm of the Northern persona. It is a culture laden with angst for which the glass is perpetually half empty. This was conveyed with a stark set, sparsely furnished. The back of the stage entailed a translucent wall as a vehicle for light and shadow. Literally, the Ghosts. There is a reference to rain and this was conveyed by a constant flow of water running down the walls and around the door and window frames. Both in the set and furnishings by Lee Savage, and the costumes by Olivera Gajic, there was an absence of color. Instead there was an austere chiaroscuro and variations of grisaille. This signified that there was to be little if any warmth or sanguine passion.

The fulcrum of the drama is conveyed in the character of Osvald (Randy Harrison) the bohemian, free thinker, and artist who has just returned, terminally ill, from Paris. Just to see him is to know that he is different. Compared to the neat restraint and crisp sharp lines of the other characters Osvald is disheveled and slovenly. His appearance is a mess and will get worse as the play progresses. Osvald is the wild card in the drama that mocks the restrained and frigidly Christian moral values of Nordic society. These aspects are condensed into the priggish, unyielding character of Pastor Manders (David Adkins). He was conveyed with chillingly measured cadence in a masterful performance by Adkins. One hated Pastor Manders' persona to the very marrow of his being.

To a contemporary audience Pastor Manders is readily transparent as a fanatical fundamentalist too driven by the propriety of blind faith to have even a shred of common sense, insight, or compassion. Of course this is his tragic flaw, and like Oedipus, the self righteous Pastor is brought down by inflexible moral ideals. While the absurdity of  Manders is so obvious today it was not so for the audience of the time. This play, when it first appeared, so thoroughly offended that its premiere occurred not in Ibsen's native Norway, or even Scandinavia, but in Chicago. It was first performed by immigrant amateur actors.

With its bold, scandalous treatment of social disease Ibsen's "Ghosts" established the canon of realism and modernism in theatre. There is a  risk that the drama, so specific to the morality of its age, may settle into  a stilted period piece. This stunning production reveals that it can provide a riveting evening of theatre.

The center of this staging of "Ghosts" is the wonderfully strong, restrained, and richly nuanced performance of Mia Dillon as Helene Alving. She has endured an unbearable marriage to the drunk and philanderer Captain Alving. Together they worked to acquire a considerable fortune. But it is blood money. With resources of her own, which she intends to pass on to Osvald, she meets with Pastor Manders to create a trust for an orphanage. It will be named for her late husband.

During a long and complex meeting the Pastor advises her on the details of the trust. He insists that there be no insurance as it would reflect badly on him for not having faith in the Lord. At every turn he appears to think first and only of his own reputation. It seems that shortly after she was married, and discovered the debauchery of her husband, she fled and appealed to the Pastor to take her in. There has been an unrequited attraction between them that even now, when she is a widow, he continues to resist. We wonder what she sees in such a cold, righteous man.

At the Pastor's insistence, as her spiritual advisor, she returned to her husband and endured a loveless marriage. She even sat up at night drinking with him till he passed out. She  attended to the details of a successful business. Even when he got the maid pregnant she helped to manage that peccadillo. To spare Osvald the horrors of his father he was sent away at an early age. Now an adult he has only recently returned home.

He has mixed feelings about returning to the mother who sent him away at an early age. In Paris he had known success as an artist. But in the opinion of Pastor Manders had lived a sinful life; particularly in his relations with unmarried women. They argue about the out of wedlock families which Osvald approves of. His mother supports his views to the horror of the Pastor.

While Osvald has lived life to the full in Paris he is now nearing death. The headaches and weakness that appeared when he was a boy have intensified. He is no longer able to work in the studio. There are clues that he inherited the disease of his father. Until penicillin in the 1940s there was no cure for syphilis. It took years for the disease to run its course. Often the tertiary stage is marked by mental illness and an attack on the nervous system. Osvald is hoping to be cared for by Regine and his mother.

Mrs. Alving lives on a remote island. In all those years the Pastor never once visited. Now she has summoned him for advice. As they converse he is shocked by her liberal views including free love. She is willing to have Osvald and the maid Regine Engstrand (Tara Franklin) live together under her roof. The Pastor is scandalized and insists that she go away immediately. But where? It seems he notices and admires her fine figure. Regine is attracted to Osvald. As well as repulsed by her crude, drunken father Engstrand (Jonathan Epstein).

It seems that Engstrand was paid off to marry the pregnant maid that the Captain had an affair with. The woman later died and with what is left of the money Engtrand aspires to start a home of itinerant sailors. He wants Regine to come live and work with him. But she despises him. In a reversal she learns that she is Osvald's half sister. Franklin's playing of the role after that seemed too harsh. She went from retrained and subservient, with a righteous contempt for her "father," to outrageous and vengeful. The transition was too abrupt to be entirely convincing. We liked her performance better before than after the denouement.

Inevitably the orphanage burns to the ground. We clearly saw this coming. The how and why is another matter. It is the turning point that catapults the play into its final stages. The event was strongly conveyed in the lighting by Tyler Micoleau and sound by Scott Killian. This launches the plot point and reversal of the Pastor. But instead of doing the right thing, poking his eyes out like Oedipus, he is willing to take the deal offered by Engstrand and engage in a cover-up. Arguably, it is a pragmatic touch that defines Ibsen as a realist. The characters behave more true to life than conforming to the dictates of classic drama. No wonder that Ibsen was denounced and reviled.

One of his strongest supporters, William Archer, among the first to translate his plays  into English, described the work as "an open drain" "a loathsome sore unbandaged" "a dirty act done publicly" "revoltingly suggestive" and "blasphemous." If these were the words of one who admired Ibsen just imagine what was said by his enemies.

It was wonderful that Anders Cato returned to BTF for another season. Last year he directed Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in a bold and critically acclaimed production. Again he is working with Randy Harrison, now in his 5th BTF season. Together they are doing insightful and serious work. One may anticipate that they will return again.

Introducing the opening night performance Kate Maguire, the artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, said that "This is our final main stage production of the season. Given this past year we are very fortunate to have reached this final production." She thanked the audience for their support.

After the performance there was a champagne and desert reception in a tent next to the theater. We got to experience Randymania. His enthusiastic fans swarmed around him. He was gracious and generous in posing for pictures and signing autographs. There were other celebrities in the crowd, all but overlooked. It seems that the actor Keir Dullea- "David and Lisa" "2001'- was attending in support of his wife Mia Dillion. But the feeding frenzy was all about Randy.

Addendum: Re Sight Lines
Posted August 19

Since posting this review there has been a dialogue among critics, including myself, regarding obstructed sight lines. In the set designed by Lee Savage, the lighting of Tyler Micoleau, and the direction of Anders Cato, there were special effects through cast shadows that simulated actions related to the characters. These individuals were listed in the program but, because I never saw them from my vantage point, I deleted them from the credits. Perhaps wrongly I assumed that they were understudies or apprentices.

Their actions and impact on the production were reported by some but not all of the critics. The point has been made that those paying for "obstructed view seats" were not so informed and paid full price. While reviewers are comped some of us did not see all aspects of the staging and are thus involved in providing misleading statements to readers. Because some reviewers were provided with better seats than others, in this special circumstance, it created an unlevel playing field it terms of being deprived from making an equally fair and honest assessment of the performance.

Full responsibility must be assumed by the director, Anders Cato, who was aware of the design and production issues. As well as Kate Maguire, the artistic director of Berkshire Theatre Festival, to whom Cato reports.

There is a professional and moral obligation on the part of the theatre. One option is to remove from sale all obstructed view seats. If they continue to be offered for sale the buyer of tickets deserves to be informed. It is possible to hold back the obstructed view seats as the last to be sold and at a reduced price.

Once a review has been posted I do not see the point of making changes to the text based on reading other opinions. My review in its entirety stands. This is indeed a remarkable production and readers are urged to see "Ghosts" if possible. With the disclosure that I did not experience the same production as seen by some other critics. The extent to which it would alter my judgment is a matter of speculation.

A lively dialogue has been initiated among several colleagues as to how best to proceed. There has been discussion of drafting a joint statement. Readers are urged to check out other websites for print and on line reviewers. This is easily done through the pull down links in the task bar under the banner of Berkshire Fine Arts. While we loved this show caveat emptor.

Response from Berkshire Theatre Festival

August 20, 2009

To our Patrons and Attendees:

In light of the recent discussion regarding the sightlines for "Ghosts", I feel a clarification is in order for all past, present, and future attendees at Berkshire Theatre Festival.

The upstage window, and the use of the "ghosts" for the production, was an exciting part of the development process for this show.  Based on the work of several modern artists, this was an element that neither our scenic shop nor our set designer had ever worked with before.  As designed and in theory, there would be no sightline problems for any patrons, so none of the seats were deemed to be obstructed. 

It is the nature of a theatrical festival that we are rarely provided the opportunity to "test" the scenery in the space prior to the start of technical rehearsals for the show.  Such was the case for "Ghosts" and we were not able to see the effect in action until the Tuesday before we started preview performances on Wednesday.  Once the effect was seen, it obviously became clear that seats on the sides of the audience would not be able to see the effect.  We immediately began informing all future ticket purchasers that, if they wished to sit on the sides of the audience that they would not be able to see every aspect of the performance.  We have also placed a "hold" on all of these side seats so that they cannot be purchased online at all.  Unfortunately, a great number of people had already purchased their tickets.

After internal discussions it was decided that these seats were not truly obstructed because the "ghosts" were not crucial parts of the production.  While their presence certainly does add to the production, they are not integral to the incredible story being told on the stage by our incredible ensemble.  This is not demostrably different than sitting in a seat where one corner of the set is not visible and a patron may miss an interesting piece of set dressing, but none of the acting performances.  We feel that simply informing patrons of their choice in advance is sufficient.  These seats are among the last to be sold and we inform the patrons of the sightline issues.  A similar situation arose with "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" and seats close to the front and on the side were deemed obstructed.  These seats were blocked off and anyone that had those tickets were exchanged to better seats.

I would encourage anyone with comments or concerns about the sightline issues for "Ghosts" to contact me directly at  I will be happy to discuss the issue with you and attempt to resolve any difficulties that you have encountered.  At BTF, we are always interested in finding ways to improve our patrons theatre experience and continue to try to provide the perfect summer theatre environment.

Many thanks to all of the critics and press people for their thoughtful words on this and all of our shows.  I encourage them to feel free to contact me as well with their thoughts on this issue or anything else to do with Berkshire Theatre Festival.  Healthy discussion is at the heart of what we do.

Jaime Davidson, Director of Marketing and PR
Berkshire Theatre Festival