Playwright August Strindberg looms as a theatrical innovator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a young man he passionately embraced atheism and the ideas of Darwin and Nietzsche.
In time he became fascinated with the supernatural and the subconscious. As his style shifted from naturalistic to expressionistic, his capacity for empathy was profoundly enlarged.
In the 1908 drama "The Ghost Sonata," completed four years before his death, Strindberg wrestles with disillusionment over the prevalence of human cruelty.
Nimbus Theatre is premiering a captivating original translation of the play by Danielle Blackbird. Those accustomed to the image of the Swedish playwright as a misogynist will be struck by this play's blistering attack on male hypocrisy and how women, a girl and a young man are its victims.
Right from the start, director/set designer Zach Morgan's staging creates a dreamlike atmosphere. Josh Cragun's video projection of rippling water serenely washes across the playing area. A cello, clarinet and piano play a lovely tune by Charlie McCarron. Various preoccupied characters mill about in front of a grand house.
Soon after the protagonist, college student Arkenholz (Andrew Sass), staggers in. Having just rescued a child from a fire, he asks a Girl Scout (Nissa Nordland) to wipe his eyes. An elderly banker in a wheelchair, Hummel (Charles Numrich), approaches to tell him that the rescue has made front-page news. As their exchange progresses, the student learns that the banker financially ruined his deceased father. Near the house we hear that homeless people have congregated.
Numrich's is a deliciously insidious portrayal of a predator who does not know himself. Here is a smug, self-righteous man who has internalized a survival of the fittest, or more to the point, wealthiest, philosophy. Destroy others or they will destroy you no matter the personal or social consequences.
However, Hummel fails to grasp that the more he points fingers at others' facades, the closer he is to revealing his own. When he exposes the damaging secrets of a colonel (David Tufford) and a plutocrat (Andrew Chambers) at a stuffy dinner party, karma calls quickly — a female mummy (Karen Bix) reveals Hummel's own dark personal history. It's as if the privileged class implodes on itself.
Sass is touching in a role that becomes an outright mouthpiece for Strindberg's agonized conclusions on the human condition. After a clever scene shift into a hyacinth-filled room dominated by a Buddha statue, Arkenholz unleashes an eloquent tirade about hypocrisy vs. loving kindness in the presence of the colonel's traumatized daughter (Megan Dowd). Socioeconomic Darwinism and Nietzsche's Superman be damned.
This evocative production is served by Brent Anderson's spectral lighting and an acting ensemble that moves like graceful phantoms, bearing witness to long hidden truths that have come to light.
John Townsend writes about theater.