Adapting one of Henrik Ibsen’s works is fraught, to say the least. Critics and scholars apply harsh scrutiny to any new approach to plays by the writer revered as the father of modern drama. The reviews for Christopher Shinn’s recent rendition of Hedda Gabler attest to this challenge. Numerous prominent writers—from Pam Gems to Christopher Hampton and Lanford Wilson—have reimagined Ghosts. Now Triad Stage of Greensboro, North Carolina, has premiered a new adaptation by artistic director Preston Lane. Lane paid homage to the broad scope of Ibsen’s writing style, deftly crafting a work that delicately balances on the knife’s edge between past and future, realism and proto-expressionism, and the spoken and unspoken. Through Lane’s evocative writing, the darkly stylized design elements, and the focused and precise acting by the ensemble, this production of Ghosts served as a fulcrum for the breadth of Ibsen’s canon.
Ghosts ignited a critical firestorm at its 1891 London debut. At the crux of the controversy was Ibsen’s treatment of taboo subjects: venereal disease, incest, and euthanasia. Some critics renounced Ghosts on moral grounds, while others praised it for innovation and daring. Categorized as one of Ibsen’s “social problem” plays, Ghosts is often positioned alongside A Doll’s House and Enemy of the People; although these texts are among the most-recognized of Ibsen’s realist canon, the works from his early and late career verge away from realism. Lane’s adaptation of Ghosts preserves the starkly emotional and moral dilemmas crafted by Ibsen, while simultaneously hearkening back to the context of the verse dramas of Ibsen’s early writing and anticipating the high modernist experimentation of the playwright’s later works. This masterful adaptation pared Ghosts down to its essence. Each word was deliberate and either masked or revealed that which could not be voiced fully. Although Lane’s adaptation did not feature the expansive language or folkloric allusions of Ibsen’s early work, the language was decidedly poetic. The abominable truths of incest, adultery, and lust were never explicitly spoken, yet raged beneath even the most seemingly banal interactions.
Every aspect of the production displayed a similar economy of representation. There was an overall sense that the design elements were stripped of excess so that each object in the performance space was symbolically resonant and utterly necessary. Additionally, Lane and his collaborators firmly entrenched the production in the mores and natural environment of nineteenth-century Norway, which entrapped the characters as much as their sordid histories. Howard Jones’s dark and damp scenic design cut across Triad’s thrust space. The glass-paned conservatory wall offered a window into the stark landscape, represented through abstracted projections. Writ large on the playing space, these projections reflected and refracted the inner turmoil of the characters. The stylized projections also operated in tandem with Stuart Nelson’s lighting design and David Smith’s sound design. This was especially evident in the moments when the specters of Mr. Alving’s sexual deviance haunt Mrs. Alving, both through Osvald and Regina as well as through her own memories. Smith’s soundscape underscored the tragic nature of the events, aurally exposing the fragile and tortured inner life of the play’s inhabitants.
Even the more realistic elements of design intensified these tumultuous internal landscapes. The Alvings evidently reside precariously in their glass house, as the ceiling featured panes of glass covered in crystallized ice, which looked as if they could crack at any instant. The cold, gray stone floor featured pooled water that Regina (Rebecca Nerz) fruitlessly attempted to mop up. Stagnant and impossible to remove, the water served as a bitter reminder that they were all at the mercy of the elements. Layered and precise, Kelsey Hunt’s costumes similarly illustrated each of the characters’ battle with confinement and control. The women were restrained by corsets, bustles, and petticoats, while the men were trapped in their layers of clothing. [End Page 640]
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