Greg Allen’s adaptation pushes the hysterics of Ibsen’s original to their logical conclusion.
When Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts made its Chicago debut in 1882, the critical response was exactly what one might expect from a Gilded Age audience to a play that features—among other things—incest, venereal disease and the occasional moment of unchecked female enlightenment. A critic for London’s Daily Telegraph called the play “crapulous,” essentially comparing the work to the gastrointestinal disturbance that follows a long night of drinking and overindulgence. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.
We’re now 133 years into the future, but we’re still in Chicago and Ibsen's Ghosts is once again premiering—this time at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. under the direction of Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen, no stranger to Ibsen's work. Allen’s adaptation is a hilarious if slightly unwieldy thing that stomps gleefully in the same melodramatic mud puddle that got the original production in so much trouble.
It also introduces a layer of self-referentiality to the proceedings that slyly modernizes the work’s social critique while taking some of the air out of the more—well—“crapulous” elements of the plot. Only occasionally do these attempts to high-five the audience over the fourth wall manifest as distractingly cute, which is (in Allen’s defense) not a phrase anyone has ever used to describe a production of Ibsen.
The plot of Ghosts takes place over the course of one long night at the home of Mrs. Alving (Carolyn Hoerdemann), a wealthy widow whose artist son, Oswald (Gage Wallace), has just returned from Paris to attend the christening of an orphanage in his deceased father’s honor. We’re also introduced to Regina (Catherine Lavoie), the house maid with plans to run off to Paris with Oswald, and her father Jacob (Kirk Anderson), a destitute carpenter with a bum leg and dreams of opening a “pious” home for lost sailors. Rounding out the cast is Pastor Manders (Steve Walker), whose pastoral duties appear to include leering at young maids, swindling money out of widows and damning artists to an eternity in hell.
Ibsen's Ghosts is basically a series of manic revelations with the emotional volume turned all the way up to 11. Any dialogue that isn’t screamed is whispered forebodingly, with all players taking at least one turn throwing themselves upon a chaise lounge with as much despair as they can muster. But it’s all done with a knowing wink, and the uniformly excellent cast appears to be having a blast ping-ponging frantically from one emotional peak to the next. That said, only Hoerdemann manages to elevate her performance above the farcical nature of the material and locate some honest-to-goodness humanity. By the play’s final scene, it’s her words alone you're hanging on to, even as she reads them directly from the source text.
The intimate nature of the set and intentionally on-the-nose lighting help to sell some of Allen’s meta-theatrical updates to the material, but these still feel somewhat superfluous. Reference is occasionally made to the existence of a script, an audience and the liquor store beneath Mary-Arrchie's second-floor home, but it’s mostly played for laughs. Only occasionally do these nods really serve to illuminate a work of satire that was already on fire to begin with. Ultimately, for a play in which the idea of good news is the revelation that you aren’t to blame for your syphilis infection, Allen’s adaptation of Ibsen's Ghosts is a whole lot of fun, effectively wiping the cobwebs off the material while preserving everything that made it so edgy in the first place. It is, to borrow an old phrase, far too much of a muchness, and that’s just enough.