Henrik Johan Ibsen was a major 19th-century Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet. He is often referred to as “the father of realism. His major works include “Peer Gynt,” “An Enemy of the People,” “A Doll’s House,” “Hedda Gabler,” and “Ghosts,” which just played this weekend at Oberlin College Theater, translated by Rolf Fjelde, and directed by the brilliant Matthew Wright.
Several of Ibsen’s plays were considered scandalous to many of his era, when European theatre was required to model strict morals of family life and propriety. Ibsen’s work utilizes a critical eye and free inquiry into the conditions of life and issues of morality, conditions that have hardly changed in today’s society. And, under the creative team led by Wright (Associate Director, Associate Prefessor of Theatre), this collegiate production of “Ghosts” was spectacular.
The story you say? Well, “Ghosts” would be a grand exhibit in the television series Ibsen Abbey. Helen Alving (Katy Early) is about to dedicate an orphanage she has built in the memory of her dead husband, Captain Alving. She reveals to her spiritual advisor, Pastor Manders (Brian Gale), that she has hidden the evils of her marriage, and has built the orphanage to deplete her husband’s wealth so that their son, Oswald, might not inherit anything from him. Pastor Manders had previously advised her to return to her husband despite his philandering, and she followed his advice in the belief that her love for her husband would eventually reform him. However, her husband’s philandering continued until his death, and Mrs. Alving was unable to leave him prior to his death for fear of being shunned by the community. Moving among them all is Jacob Engstrand (Danny Prikazsky), a carpenter working on the orphanage, who not only has plans of his own, but also has Regina thinking that he is her father. SPOILER ALERT: During the action of the play she discovers that her son Oswald (Colin Wulff), whom she had sent away so that he would not be corrupted by his father, is suffering from inherited syphilis, and has fallen in love with Regina Engstrand (Sarah Rosengarten), Mrs. Alving’s maid, who is revealed to be an illegitimate daughter of Captain Alving, and thereby Oswald’s own half-sister. The play concludes with Mrs. Alving having to decide whether or not to euthanize her son Oswald in accordance with his wishes. Her choice is left unknown.
The play opens to haunting music (Designer Jonathan Maag and Music Consultant Early), and then dramatic lighting (Designer Jeremy K. Benjamin) gradually rises on a gorgeous set (Designer Christopher McCollum). Beautiful depth and detail immediately take hold of our senses, as a macabre presentation of characters appear before us, and stimulates our intellect to devour “what the Sam hill?” is about to happen to us.
Early is full of blistering characterization. Watch her hold on to the moral high ground, bury secrets, and navigate family histrionics, all done with excellent precision and execution. Gale pastorally glides through the piece with committed strength and moral fiber, and delicately showing the cracks in the armor, with deft choices. Wulff presents a disturbing descent into hell, producing an arc of character that is fascinating to watch, and heartbreaking to bear witness to his own solution. Rosengarten is a feisty presence with complete command of her nature, embodying her character with inherited strength and guts. Prikazsky does creepy and slimy well, but I hear he is a great guy. He creates a limping shell of a man, whose conniving is brought forth with sublime acting.
Director Wright delivers this classic with adept pace, with three acts that feel like two, guiding these future artists with skill and editing prowess. It is a masterful evening, aided by the glorious costume design of Chris Flaharty. Amazing work.
Kudos to Assistant Director Abigail Barr, and the trio of Stage managers bringing this piece to life on the outside and inside: Calling a great show was Production Stage Manager Julia Perez, and her assistants Hannah Montgomery, and Andrew Hartley.
The Oberlin theater productions must be put on the “go see” list of any aspiring actor. It is a beautiful environment to take in, and the experience will greatly empower and enlighten you as an artist. Be sure to check out the summer festival season.
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Kevin Joseph Kelly