Experience the Strange World of August Strindberg in The Ghost Sonata

Strange and scary and worth your time.
Strange and scary and worth your time. Photo by Pin Lim
The set-up:
Remember the scene in The Seven Year Itch in which schlubby married Tom Ewell fantasizes about seducing the radiantly glorious Marilyn Monroe? To set the mood, he searches through his record collection. “Debussy...Ravel...Stravinsky.” He puts that back quickly; “Stravinsky'll only scare her.”

I think that's how most people feel about August Strindberg. He's one scary dude.

The execution:
The Swedish playwright (and poet, novelist, painter, autobiographer, photographer, musician, occultist, essayist) revolutionized theater. No one had ever before put himself onstage so nakedly. No one since, either. He laid out his tempestuous inner life with a surgeon's precision, a linguist's sharpness, a scientist's detachment. He held nothing back. It was as if the stage were his own analyst's couch. The doctor and the patient are both on. Neurotic, misogynistic, psychically scarred from childhood trauma (so he claimed), never at peace, thrice married, he viewed the world through angst-filled eyes: illusion, guilt, suffering, disappointment, endless pain. The Student at the end of The Ghost Sonata says these very words, bestowing a benediction upon the living dead in the grand house. He ends with May God be merciful to you on your journey.

If there's light anywhere, it illuminates decay, dust and filth. This isn't a blissful picture. The living are half-dead, if not mummies reanimated, or vampires sucking out life. Some are apparitions. People are used then discarded. Some speak like parrots. Servants refuse to do anything. Beautiful flowers are poison. Everyone lies, cheats, seduces, then moves on to continue his or her base ways, or sits in silence. No one is as he seems; everyone's an actor, willing or not. They might as well be tombstones.

When the play opened in Copenhagen at Strindberg's own Intimate Theatre in 1908, it gave a resounding slap to the comfortable bourgeoisie. A study in fantastic expressionism, Sonata scared the public. Strindberg said his play sent the patrons hurtling out into the street screaming and kicking. Their reaction made him smile.

Strindberg's unique voice is ironic, laced with harshness, over-the-top, quicksilver. In his later period, he moved from his scathing early naturalism (Miss Julie) to a profound unrealism that can be shattering in its disquieting strangeness. The mood can also be unintentionally comic if not handled with care, and a few in the audience at Classical Theatre's evocative production didn't quite catch the nuanced symbolism, snickering as if it were a sitcom. Of course, that's part of the problem with anything avant-garde. It can date quickly, turn musty or, worse, come off as silly.

Sonata is one of four in a series he called chamber plays, a “fantasy in the present.” An innocent Student (lilting Matthew Keenan), a good Samaritan, searches for a better life. He wants a fine house like the one across the street, where the Young Woman (dewy Shunté Lofton) tends her flowers. Finagled by the Old Man in a wheelchair (deliciously seedy James Belcher) with promises of inheritance and power, he's invited into the house for supper. His dreams do not come true. What awaits is an education, a dinner party from hell. A Swedish Addams Family. He finds shallowness, evil, mediocrity and mendacity, plenty of that. Exterior, interior, then farther inside. The house and its inhabitants are rotting away.

The human grotesqueries include the faux Colonel (John Kaiser, nicely swathed in obsequious charm); his wife, The Mummy (Julie Oliver, in pasty makeup and faded Victorian gown like Miss Haversham); the gross and bullying Cook (Merritt Weirick), who saps all the nourishment out of the food; Male 1 (ghoulish Andrew Love), who wears mourning; The Dark Lady (Lindsay Ehrhardt), who hides her face under a veil; and the Old Man's slave (Dave Osbie Shephard), who knows secrets about the skeletons in this house. A cross-section of depravity and hopelessness.

Strindberg was a stickler for design and lighting, and he'd be especially pleased with director Jonathan Harvey's diaphanous vision, vivified through Ryan McGettigan's appropriately wispy design with its sweep of swagged curtain and fountain with statue. The supper table is particularly effective with its black dishes and rococo chairs. (Perhaps if The Mummy didn't emerge from the grandfather clock and entered as she's supposed to, from a closet, the snickering could have been curtailed, if not postponed.) The house, exterior and in, is shaded like cobwebs under J. Mitchell Cronin's soft lighting and Macy Lyne's very lived-in, moldy costumes. The ominous mood is enhanced tremendously by the background guitar thrum, composed and played by Andy McWilliams. It's a potent layer.

The verdict:
Strindberg is rarely produced anymore. He's much more respected and admired in Europe, where famed director Ingmar Bergman loved Sonata so much, he staged it four different times. But he still scares people. That's to his credit, his fame and his worldwide influence. I would guess there won't be an opportunity to see Sonata performed anywhere else in the future, but Classical's production is atmospheric and evocative in every way. Just be warned that you're going to see something strange and wild, unlike any other. This classic play is one of a kind, just like its author.

The Ghost Sonata. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and February 15 and 20; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. February 8 through February 26. 4617 Montrose. For information, call 713-963-9665 or visit $10 to $25.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover