Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why a Duck?

I was at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College this weekend for the closing performance of David Eldridge’s new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.  I am still suffering.
Considered by many to be the orphan child of Ibsen’s oeuvre, The Wild Duck (1885) is the story of Hjalmar Ekdal.  Hjalmar is the recipient of many kindnesses from Håkon Werle, who set him up in business and fostered the relationship and eventual marriage between Hjalmar and Gina, who was formerly a maid in the Werle household.  They have a daughter, Hedvig, who is going blind due to a congenital disease, and live with Old Ekdal, Hjalmar’s father.  Many years ago, Old Ekdal went to prison following a bad business deal with Håkon, who let the old man bear the full brunt of the law.
When Gregers, Håkon’s son, hears of all this, he is appalled.  An idealist, he breaks with his father, whom he sees as manipulative and deceitful, and moves in with the Ekdal family in an effort to get Hjalmar to open his eyes and see the reality of the situation.
However Hjalmar, Gina, Hedvig and Old Ekdal are already very happy.  While their lives may be built upon illusions, they are illusions that sustain and nurture them.  In the end, they are poisoned by Gregers’ rather selfish, hollow idealism, and the family falls apart.  Gregers also inspires Hedvig to shoot her pet duck to demonstrate her love for her father, but instead shoots herself to death.
In considering The Wild Duck, George Bernard Shaw wrote “you forget that you are in a theatre; to look on with horror and pity at a profound tragedy, shaking with laughter all the time at an irresistible comedy.”
One would be surprised in reading a synopsis of the play to find it a laugh riot, and that surprise would be justified.  Perhaps Shaw had a perverse sense of humor.  (Little girls shooting themselves are seldom the punch line of a good joke.)  Or, perhaps this translation by Eldridge is the real culprit.  In the notes Eldridge provides in the playbook, he writes, “here in 2011 we don’t often question whether it’s right to tell the truth, or ask at what cost to ourselves and others we tell the truth.  Modern life is a multiplicity of narratives that put our lives ‘out there.’  Whether on Facebook or on talk shows, in blogs or in newspaper columns, we constantly seem to be saying, This is who I really am and this is my authenticity.”  Translation: I cannot really understand historical context so instead here’s my take.
Eldridge does much to make the text more conversational and contemporary, but at the loss of Ibsen’s complexity and layered meaning.  Perhaps there are too many subtleties in the work for it to translate successfully – and perhaps it will always be Norwegian to me.
Total blame for this flat-footed, sluggish, exhausting disaster does not rest fully with Eldridge.  Director Caitriona McLaughlin makes one fatal misstep after another – starting with the party scene.  Done from the point of view of the party wait staff, one has the feeling she was pointing the proscenium in the wrong direction.  She also gives many of the waiters some low comedy business (one can only assume she owes the actors money) that makes little-to-no sense, and introduces some senseless modernizations that diminish focus from the text.  The one laugh she manages to muster involves a skinned rabbit – the equivalents of stooping to a rubber chicken.  Though the rabbit produces a laugh, it inspired most of the audience to entertain thoughts of an early dinner rather than of Northern European tragic-comedy.
Inter-scene music, provided by Ryan Rumery, was baleful.  Imagine discordant elevator muzak, but not quite as good, and you have some idea.  It’s not just that Rumery’s sound didn’t fit the play, it wouldn’t fit any play.
Performances were universally execrable.  Tom Bloom, as Håkon Werle, finds a single note and plays it throughout.  Mary Bacon, as Gina, seems more like a can-do sitcom mom (one expects her at any moment to warble One Day at a Time), bringing nothing to the role but a strong voice and a pert pair of hips.  Peter Maloney as Old Ekdal dithers nicely, but one had the impression of diminishing returns every time he entered the scene.
The most egregious offender of the cast, however, must be Dashiell Eaves as Gregers.  Granted it is a difficult part – by turns idealist and destroyer – but it seems completely out of Eaves’ grasp.  His voice is thin and his line readings strained.  He does, however, have a noticeable tattoo running from his collarbone up the side of his neck, and that remains his defining characteristic as an actor.
The Wild Duck seems out of place in the Ibsen canon.  Instead of lives ruined by lies and deception, here lives are ruined when happy fictions are stripped away.  It has long been an axiom of your correspondent that a little truth is a dangerous thing and that complete honesty is absolutely fatal.  This is an idea rich with irony and pathos – neither quality of which was on evidence at Bard.

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