The Ghost Sonata

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Ghost Sonata is currently being staged in a workshop production at the Actors’ Gang in Culver City and will be up for one more weekend before the group takes Midsummer Nights Dream on a world tour. I read August Strindberg’s play back in the late 1960s and remember wondering back then if it were more a play for “self-broadcasting,,” a sort of a radio script for one’s private transmission. My recollection is that it was the kind of poetic nightmare that appealed to a young writer full of the inner turbulence that often marks a literary apprenticeship. This production, however, did little more than evoke a desire to read the play again in order to find out exactly how much this production verged in intent from Strindberg’s script. Mr. Brian Finney, the director, seemed to have little idea of how to bring the young student and the Hyacinth Girl into full awareness of each other’s predicaments. The acting was either “over” or “under” the tone needed to sustain characters, and none of it benefitted from the decision to “mike” the characters, which resulted in the first act seeming like a parody of “lip synch” performance.

On the whole, the acting was not as good as could be found at a MFA production at UCSD’s theater. I was surprised, in fact, by the pedestrian quality of the efforts. The best work was done by two young actresses who played the role of subordinate collaborators to Hummel, the vampire-like figure of The Ghost Sonata. When they became the horses who dragged Hummel’s wheelchair like a triumphant chariot in slow motion across the stage, the stage briefly glowed with a sense of genuine theatricality. The staging was not defiantly original at that moment, but at least it pulled theme and image into the vortex of the unpredictable. Even if one knew the script, it was hard to tell at that precise moment what might happen next, and the renewal of that uncertainty was exactly what more of this production needed. If it is to be revived during October as a play meant for the Halloween season, then the internal dynamics need more imaginative commitment. In particular, the castration motif needs serious reconsideration. Emasculating males by ripping rubberized facsimiles of genitals is superficial titillation at the level of juvenile pomposity. These instances made The Ghost Sonata seem closer to Alfred Jarry than Strindberg.

The musicians were perhaps the best part of the performance; their combination of percussion and accordion renditions of various tunes gave the production a hint of the tone poem that is at the heart of Strindberg’s play. Any play that they happened to be hired for would probably be worth attendance. Whether that play would have the kind of director and actors needed to give their duets the context they deserve is most likely no better than a 3 to 1 proposition.