Monday, November 3, 2014

"Ghost Sonata" at nimbus theatre

nimbus theatre's production of Swedish playwright August Strindberg's Ghost Sonata is delightfully bizarre. It's a surreal world full of not just ghosts but also vampires, mummies, murders, mysteries, and one insane dinner party. The only other Strindberg play I've seen is Miss Julie which, although dark and twisted, is incredibly realistic, so I was not quite prepared for the strangeness of this play written after what is known as Strindberg's "inferno crisis." But I found it fascinating, with many ideas and layers and complex characters to contemplate. I was fortunate enough to attend on a day when there was a post-show discussion, which helped me to make sense of what I had just seen. But even without that added benefit, Ghost Sonata is a wonderfully new and innovative production of a classic piece of theater, with lovely original music, ingenious set design, and a cast that jumps into the strangeness with both feet.

Ghost Sonata is one of Strindberg's chamber plays, a play with three acts that flows like a piece of music (especially when accompanied by original music played by a three-piece onstage orchestra). In the first act we meet an idealistic young student (Andrew Sass) who has just saved a bunch of people from a collapsed building. A wily old man (Charles Numrich) uses him in his plan to get inside a grand house. The old man seems to know and be connected to many of the residents in mysterious ways, especially the Colonel (David Tufford) and his crazy wife (Karen Bix). The student is fascinated by these rich people in this fine house, so he agrees to the plan. In the second act, the old man and the student have managed to get inside the house, and the old man confronts the residents and the servants over dinner as we learn of his twisted plan. In the third and final act, the student talks with the young lady of the house (Megan Dowd) and learns about the strange happenings. Her parents are crazy, she's terrified of the servants, and despairing of life in general. The student soon realizes that what's inside this house is not as beautiful and fine as it appears on the outside.

the ghostly girl scout aids the student as the old man looks on
(Nissa Nordland, Andrew Sass, Charles Numrich,
photo by Mathieu Lindquist)
The whole thing reminded me of a warped and twisted version of Downton Abbey, where Mrs. Patmore is a vampire, Carson is angry and careless, Lady Grantham is a mummy, Lord Grantham is not who he says he is, Lady Mary is sick and frightened, and Matthew is the son of a lunatic who may be on his way there himself. If the ghost of a girl scout in the first act doesn't clue you in to what you're in for, the second act insane dinner party leaves no doubt that something is amiss. Bengtsson (Mark L. Mattison) is no Carson as he sloppily spoons soup into bowls and drops some strange pink goop on the plates in front of the guests, which some of them actually eat. And then, the transition between the second and third act, from the dining room to the flower room where the young lady spends her time, is unlike anything I've ever seen. It's quite thrilling and will blow your hair back, literally (set design by Zach Morgan, who also directs).

I apologize if I'm not making sense, but this is a difficult one to make sense of. I mean that in the best possible way, it's really quite fascinating and fun to watch. Themes of class tension, redemption, relationships, revenge, and being haunted by one's past all come into play in this strange Strindberg world. It was obvious listening to the creators talk about their work in the post-show discussion that a lot of time, thought, and effort went into creating this piece, including a new modern-day translation by Danielle Blackbird, original music by Charlie McCarron, and abstract video projections by Josh Cragun. All of these pieces come together quite beautifully in a bizarre and surreal sort of way. There's really no way to adequately describe it, you just have to see it for yourself. Ghost Sonata continues at nimbus theater through November 23.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.