Ascetic filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg's landmark Dogme 95 entry, the Danish hit Festen (The Celebration), has turned 14 years old. This stage production is only a little younger: Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna premiered his cold-blooded, jewel-toned production in 2001, and it has only now oozed its way to St. Ann's Warehouse for a short run. In several ways the work shows its adolescence. Festen was very much from Jarzyna's derivative Kubrickian phase, when he was still firmly in thrall to deep color palettes and shimmery horror-movie music, and some performances are by now distressingly broad. (Marek Kalita as bad seed Michael sells “jelly-boned loucheness” so hard, he can barely light a cigarette.) But there are compensations: a talented multigenerational company, a certain glossy aesthetic we see surprisingly little of here and an intriguingly lopsided structure.
Famously, Vinterberg's movie eschewed fakery, keeping itself to a strict diet of natural light sources and diegetic sound. Here the same story of an adult son revealing a horrible secret during his father's birthday party has been gorged with theatrical sensationalism. At long tables, four generations toast to wealthy hotelier Helge (Jan Peszke), though no good man ever presided over a hotel with such portentously red walls. A row of glossy pine doors seemingly leads to wormholes, as the physical rules governing Malgorzata Szczesniak's set shift given the characters onstage. Even before Christian (Andrzej Chyra) makes his revelations, we're eyeing the downstage bathtub with a certain amount of misgiving: Set your dials to “eerie.”
This telegraphing is part of the trouble, although Jarzyna's literally distant staging also doesn't help. As in many parts of this frustrating but occasionally titillating production, what looks good (actors sitting a football field away from us) dangerously lowers the emotional stakes. When, during the wonderful coda—a 15-minute second act—everyone actually comes downstage, it's almost a physical relief. That's the sensation of Jarzyna's perversity starting, just for a moment, to pay off.—Helen Shaw