Sunday, October 29

Henrik Ibsen is alive and well and living in Brooklyn.

It's not often I can say I had a day that was chock-full-o'-Ibsen, but Saturday was certainly one of those days. A playwright that I'm soon-to-be collaborating with on a new musical had a reading of one of his plays at BAM as part of their Henrik Ibsen centennial. The focus of this particular event was "Re-Imagining Ibsen for the 21st Century," and in addition to performances of a few contemporary plays inspired by Ibsen and his characters, it featured a panel of Ibsen scholars and the director of the production of "The Wild Duck" currently running at BAM.

"A panel of Ibsen scholars?" you might say with a slight sneer and forboding images of boredom in your head. I'll just say that watching polite-on-the-surface squabbles between artists and academians on the best way to present Ibsen to the world is as engrossing as any scene from an Oscar Wilde play.

After the discussion, I bought a ticket on the fly to see that night's performance of "The Wild Duck," which wasn't part of my subscription this season, but which I had wanted to see, and which this Ibsen event certainly piqued my interest about.

Now, BAM is my favorite place to see theatre in New York (and probably 2nd in the world only to London's National), not only because I usually dig the stuff they present (though my friends and I joke that there's always one production per season that is so awful you want to slit your wrists, but we've come to love that as part of the BAM experience), but because of the culture of arts appreciation that permeates the very bricks of the building. It's odd to me that this electric feeling you get upon entering a place like BAM or the National Theatre in London is such a rarity in America, and this production of "The Wild Duck" made me think about this even more.

The show was directed by the artistic director of Norway's national theatre, who set the play in the early 1960s and made a fair amount of revisions to the text. The production was hip, sexy, engrossing--things I think all productions should be in one way or another. It struck me that I've never really seen a hip, sexy re-imagining of a classic from an American director (in a major production, anyway), and I started wondering why.

I immediately thought of two other productions that re-invigorated the classics for me, both from foreign directors: Sam Mendes' "Uncle Vanya" at BAM a few years ago, and anything by Ivo van Hove, though particularly his "Hedda Gabler," which was his last offering at New York Theatre Workshop. Why don't American directors generally take such risks with classic material?

Maybe it's something of the arts culture -- or lack of it, really -- here in America as a whole. The Norwegians at the Ibsen panel discussion all said that they grew up with telecasts of Ibsen plays on TV, that lines of text from classic Ibsen plays have become widely-used idioms in their daily speech. The closest I've come to anything like that was the annual airing of "The Sound of Music," which my mom always let me stay up for, and maybe that line about the kindness of strangers from "Streetcar Named Desire," though there's usually a fair amount of camp involved whenever that shows up in everyday life.

Whether it's that or not, there are definitely some unspoken "rules" associated with classics here that are at work defining what we feel we can and can't do with classic plays. I know I'm certainly guilty of it, too. There's an instinct to preserve a classic rather than re-invent it, even though I think re-inventing it might be the more important aspiration. The squabble that broke out during the panel discussion was about the director's decision to cut some of Ibsen's play, which the scholar insisted Ibsen wrote for a reason, whereas the director said he didn't need that part of the play, and that, wryly, "Ibsen is dead." But the whole point of the event, which is why that comment is especially funny, is that Ibsen--in his themes, his social commentary, his emotionally and politically engaging writing--is very much alive today, and I think the consideration of "translating" those ideas to a contemporary audience is so important, and something we might be a little bit afraid of here in America.

The director of "The Wild Duck," for example, cut some scenes entirely, and had the actors whisper some of the lines of dialogue into other character's ears, inaudible to the audience. He said that he thought one of Ibsen's flaws as a writer was that he explained too much, and that a contemporary audience would be more engaged if they were put in a bit of suspense. What would the response be if an American director decided to meddle with Ibsen's text? Probably an even harsher admonishment along the lines of the Ibsen scholar at the panel. And perhaps it's not even a editing of text that makes a classic ring true to an audience today, but more of an attitude toward it.

Interestingly, the director of "The Wild Duck" pointed out that Ibsen is one of the most idiosyncratic writers--"The Wild Duck," for instance, features a character who basically sets up a wildlife preserve in his attic and goes hunting inside his house--but I, and certainly most people here in the U.S., don't immediately think quirky when I think Ibsen. But it's interesting that foreign directors instantly see that about his writing, the same way, I think, American directors think about and get interested in new plays here. (Go see Sarah Ruhl's "The Clean House" for proof that we just love quirky characters in our new plays.)

It's that approach that can make dusty classics feel shiny and new. Look at Sam Mendes' "Uncle Vanya," which was a pretty traditional production, but which approached the characters with such incisiveness, sensuality and wit that it felt like a whole new play. Ivo van Hove's "Hedda Gabler," on the other end of the spectrum, was an unapologetic deconstruction, but one that hit me at my core surely the way Ibsen had imagined his play doing, albeit in a totally different form.

It's just interesting to me that I can't imagine an American director -- even the ones I love and admire -- tackling a classic text in quite the same way. And that's not a good or bad thing, it's just interesting. I think the closest I've seen is perhaps Michael Mayer's production of "A View from the Bridge," which was one of the first things I saw in New York, and was a revelation to me in terms of what choices a director can make when presenting a text. But I would venture to say that that production wasn't so much a re-contextualing of the Arthur Miller classic, just really smart storytelling (as is to be expected from Michael Mayer -- I love him!).

Anyway, this is what my friends and I spent hours discussing over belgian waffles and apple pie last night. We are such theater dorks.


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