by Lynn on October 22, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

I picked these two because they deal with provocative subjects.

They are both modern in their sensibilities even though one of them was written 130 years ago. They are beautifully written and performed. And both of them will play for a few more weeks at their respective theatres.

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Written by Henrik Ibsen. Directed by Morris Panych. Set by Ken MacDonald. Costumes by Dana Osborne. Lighting by Alan Brodie. Starring: Diego Matamoros, Michelle Monteith, Nancy Palk, Gregory Prest, Joseph Ziegler.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company

GHOSTS is not a play for Halloween although a few of the characters are monsters in their own way.

GHOSTS was written in 1881 by Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen.

He has been called the father of modern drama because his plays spoke to those subjects no one dared speak and of course because the subject matter is so modern.

For example, in A DOLL’S HOUSE a woman who has acted and been treated like a little doll in her own house by her husband, stands her ground and winds up shattering her and her husband’s illusions about marriage and life.

She leaves him, closing the door—described as a slam that was heard around the world.

In GHOSTS Ibsen deals with the lies people tell each other to protect their reputations,
to put on a respectable veneer, when underneath is unspeakable dishonesty.

Mrs. Alving is a widow who is about to open an orphanage named after her late husband
Captain Alving. She is doing it to get closure from his memory and to continue passing him off as someone worthy of respect. In fact he was a scumbag.

He lived a debauched life even in their home. No woman was safe from his advances and certainly not the family maid.

Mrs. Alving learned of his philandering early in their marriage and went to her friend,
Paster Manders for help, solace, comfort, whatever you want to call it. She tried to tell him how horrible life was with her husband. Manders didn’t want to hear about it.

He said her duty was with her husband and he sent her back, where she lived a dreary, sad life. I don’t have to tell you that Paster Manders was a blinkered prig. He thought reputation and what people thought was everything. Boy did he get a rude awakening when he learned the truth.

Well eventually those philandering ways caught up with Captain Alving and he died of syphilis.

Now Mrs. Alving could live her life. She got great joy from her son Oswald.

He grew up to move to Paris and live a kind of bohemian life. He came home for the unveiling of the orphanage, but all is not well.

Oswald begins flirting with the young maid in the house.

Mrs. Alving hears this and is struck hard with the memory of her husband doing that
with a previous maid.

She refers to this as ghosts….the ghosts of previous behaviour. With perhaps the same results, without giving too much away.

So the play is full of echoes of the past, and deals with subjects society in Norway just didn’t deal with.

Ibsen was always tweaking the noses of Norwegian society, pointing out their hypocrisy.

And in a larger sense he was tweaking the stuck up noses of any priggish, blinkered society that didn’t address the hard truths they were faced with.

Director Morris Panych has also done a new adaptation. Panych is an accomplished playwright/director and he’s given the play a punchy, contemporary adaptation, even though it’s still set in Norway in the 1880s.

He directs it with care and he makes interesting choices. For example, the setting by Ken MacDonald is a tastefully appointed room, with a huge window that goes the length of the room. It’s always gloomy outside and almost always raining.

And we get the hint of some kind of overgrown garden or trees out there. This gives a sense of oppression to the proceedings. Sunlight is a rare but longed for commodity. Well it is Norway.

What better way to set the scene for a repressive society.

The cast is strong, with Nancy Palk giving a towering performance as Mrs. Alving. She listens quietly to Paster Manders—played beautifully by Joseph Ziegler—as he blusters about how to live one’s life and always worrying about reputation.

She’s not embarrassed or meek anymore. She lobs a zinger that puts him in his place.
I find it interesting that both Palk and Ziegler talk in a very quiet, understated way—this is deliberate—perhaps to keep things secret? Don’t know but thought that a good touch.

And as Oswald Gregory Prest conveys the worldliness and grace of a man who has lived
in the world, and also the great concern that something is terribly wrong and he’s
frightened and desperate. Mr. Prest is a gifted, interesting young actor.

And this production is dandy.

Nothing dusty about this play. As timely as today. And as timely as THE NORMAL HEART.

At Buddies and Bad Times Theatre. Written by Larry Kramer. Directed by Joel Greenberg. Designed by John Thompson. Lighting by Kimberly Purtell. Starring: John Bourgeois, Mark Crawford, Paul Essiembre, Ryan Kelly, Mark McGrinder, Jeff Miller, Sarah Orenstein, Jonathan Seinen, Jonathan Wilson.

Produced by Studio 180.

THE NORMAL HEART was written in 1985 by Larry Kramer.

It’s set in the early 1980s, in New York City. Ned Weeks is a writer for small publications, and is a rabble rouser.

He notices that gay men are getting sick with a mysterious disease, that leaves them tired; with lesions on their skin, and eventually they all seem to die. No one wants to acknowledge it, talk about it; no newspapers will touch the story.

The disease of course is AIDS.

Ned goes into overdrive helping to found an organization that tries to get the word out to his gay community about the disease and how to stop it. They try to get the establishment to recognize the problem. They are met with a stone wall of silence.

There is a doctor, Dr. Brookner, in a wheelchair (she had polio as a kid) who seems to be the only medical advocate, who believes the disease is sexually transmitted and to stop having sex for a while.

Well you know how well that goes down. But she is as frustrated as her patients because she knows how insidious the disease is.

In a way this is Larry Kramer’s story. He founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York in the 1980s that tried to bring awareness to the gay community and people at large. He did send out pamphlets, tried to raise money for the cause; lobbied all sorts of politicians with frustrating results. Until finally, at last, he was heard.

This play is the result.

Because we know so much about AIDS now, there might be a temptation to say ‘been there, done that, know about that’ with the play. That would be unfair to the play.

By being so specifically a New York City story, we get a clear picture of how terrible it was for that small group of people to alert the public and the politicians about this horrible disease. The rest of the world has the benefit of their struggle.

But even with this hindsight, when we know so much, to see what they were up against, the terror of these men when they got the symptoms, is startling. It’s sobering to see Dr. Brookner being honest with her patients.

In one scene a man has the symptoms. He’s told there’s no cure. He asks if he can even kiss his lover. She says she doesn’t know, because at the time she didn’t know.

It’s such a stunning moment, that being able to do something so loving and personal as kissing is even in question.

I saw the original production of THE NORMAL HEART in New York in the 1980s. It was stunning and moving then, and it still is.

We now have vaccines and drugs to fight AIDS. One might think THE NORMAL HEART is dated. Unfortunately it’s not.

In his program note, playwright Larry Kramer writes in 2011, that at the time when THE NORMAL HEART is set, the early 1980s, at the very beginning of the discovery of this dread disease 41 people had died. In 2011, a total of 35 million had died world wide.

I’d say the play is timely. And what’s even more frightening is that the numbers of people infected with AIDS today are rising again because people believe they can live on the cocktail of drugs and are engaging in unprotected sex. I’d say that makes the play timely.

The production does the play terrific justice.

It’s directed by Joel Greenberg and he brings out all the emotion of it in this splendid moving, production.

It all takes place on a large, empty square space with the audience all around. Rock music plays between scenes. The scenes are changed with speed and economy.

Greenberg’s direction makes this production an explosion of emotion.

The cast is outstanding led by Jonathan Wilson as Ned. He’s wiry, combative, committed, and cares so deeply. As Dr. Brookner, Sarah Orenstein is cool, methodical, no nonsense and impassioned. And so is the rest of this fine cast.

It’s a huge story but so personal as well. We have all been affected by AIDS in one
way or another.

THE NORMAL HEART goes back to the beginning.

Shattering then. Shattering now. It changes you. You will want to hug your dear ones after it.

Terrific production. See it. Bring Kleenex.

GHOSTS continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District.

THE NORMAL HEART, continues at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until November 6.

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