By John Quinn
The scenic design for productions in Detroit’s storefront, “black box” theaters – like 1515 Broadway – are representational rather that realistic. A critic, wrapped in a stream of unconsciousness, can find his imagination pursuing strange associations.
Katie Orwig’s set for Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm,” opening Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company’s new season, includes a grandfather clock up stage center. It’s stopped; the hands are askew in a position that might be described as four minutes past two thirty. This clock isn’t even right twice a day! It’s “timeless.” But is “Rosmersholm” timeless?
It has the pedigree for greatness. Ibsen is often referred to as the father of modern drama and is one of the founders of modernism in the theater. Ever the iconoclast, Ibsen challenged cultural conventions, alternately defending the new order and the status quo. His works are dark, edgy – full of import, strewn with reference to immoralities like infidelity and even incest. Many critics consider “Rosmersholm” his crowning achievement. Why isn’t it produced more often?
Bluntly, Ibsen’s exposure of the secret lives of the ruling class can’t scandalize a culture anesthetized by the crass behavior exhibited in modern media. “Rosmersholm” seems tame compared to any given episode of “Real Housewives.” In addition, the script is a little melodramatic; so much so that fellow iconoclast Charles Ludlam didn’t hesitate to “borrow” a big chunk of exposition from the first scene and drop it into his satire “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” now playing at the Tipping Point Theatre. Yet “Rosmersholm” has some enduring qualities.
The Rosmer family is an old respected pillar of the community, a role model for their peers. That position is shaken when Johannes Rosmer (Jon Ager) announces he is breaking with his class and supporting the revolutionary reforms of the newly elected government. This “apostasy” (a word recurring frequently in the plot) breaks his ties with his brother-in-law, Professor Kroll (Keith Allan Kalinowski). He suspects Rosmer is being manipulated by Rebecca West (Alysia Kolascz), an “emancipated” woman, who had been the late Mrs. Rosmer’s caretaker in her decline. It’s no help that the troubled Beata’s death was suicide, or that Rebecca is still living in the house a year later. As trust disintegrates, guilt arises. What are Rebecca’s real motives? Has she had a role in Beata’s final insanity? Or is Johannes responsible, instead?
We also meet Ulrik Brendel (Dave Davies), once Rosmer’s mentor but now a down-on-his-luck mooch. The character’s two appearances don’t advance the plot so much as provide some comic relief and a sense of the chasm separating opposing social forces. Nor is Richard Payton’s character central, but “Peter Mortensgaard” is the voice of the reform movement. Even though he lost his position after Rosmer denounced his sexual improprieties, he is eager to embrace the apostate if it furthers his cause. As so often is the case in European drama, it’s the “help” the audience can rely on. Here it’s the housekeeper, Mrs. Helseth (Dominique Lowell), who is the sounding board for her employers, and thus pivotal in revealing the plot.
Frannie Shepherd-Bates provides a level, straight-forward reading of a complex work. The performances are exceptional, and relieve us from the tedium that might arise while coming to grasp with issues to which we barely relate. Cast and director also keep us engaged while Ibsen plays with hints and suspicions that aren’t resolved until the surprising, grim climax.
The costume design by Barbie Amann Weisserman is subdued yet striking, and it is a major player in delineating both character and mood.
So in sum, is “Rosmersholm” a timeless play? No. The common culture, for better or worse, has moved past the moral and aesthetic norms of its time. But is it a TIMELY play? Frannie Shepherd-Bates sums it well. “The political climate in 1880s Norway was not unlike that which is currently prevalent in the United States. Ibsen wrote this play as a result of what he witnessed there: After a liberal government replaced one that was conservative, extreme politics tore friends and families apart.” From that point of view, “Rosmersholm” is as timely as today’s news broadcast.
Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company at 1515 Broadway, 1515 Broadway, Detroit. Friday-Saturday through Oct. 8, plus Sunday, Oct. 2. $15-18, or pay what you can. 313-708-4269. http://www.magentagiraffe.org