Cold Comfort

Swanwhite is both a dissection of the conventions of romantic love and a testament to the hoped-for "love that transcends death."

Scandinavian theater — indeed, world theater — has been indelibly stamped by the work of two men: Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Both are known for having introduced a realistic or naturalistic quality to modern playwriting, and for their careful examination of the dynamics between men and women. Both also wrote strong, interesting roles for women. That’s pretty much where any similarity ends, as their politics, style, and intention were quite different.

Volatile, stridently antifeminist, and prone to periods where he had difficulty distinguishing between what was real and what was fantasy, Strindberg developed a reputation for writing plays that did more to lay bare the substance of his own misery than to offer a coherent narrative. Driven by demons, Strindberg was a man who could (and usually did) turn out a play in a fortnight, often to immediately tear it up or burn it. He married frequently and desperately, dabbled in alchemy and occultism, and tended to fits of religious fervor marked by a Nietzschean disdain for Christianity. A firm believer in disembodied spirits, vindictive, unseen “Powers,” and reincarnation, he fervently hoped that the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe had passed into his own body. As Cambridge’s Brita Mortensen noted in 1949, for many years Strindberg was “reduced to despair by poverty and material anxiety, weakened by absinthe, racked with a sense of guilt through his failure as a son, husband, and father [he adored and missed his five children, all of whom lived with their respective mothers], convinced of a conspiracy against himself … and haunted by the ever-present dread not only of direct assault, but also of incarceration as a debtor, criminal, anarchist, lunatic, or the mere victim of private animosity.” An attempt to escape the pressures of the outside world (and the power of women) led Strindberg into a Benedictine monastery, where he lasted for only 24 hours.

Out of this personal maelstrom came Swanwhite, a “fractured fairy-tale” based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s La Princesse Maleine, and strongly influenced by Dalarna, a Swedish province known for its folk tales. Written as a bridal gift for wife number three (the actress Harriet Bosse), Swanwhite is both a dissection of the conventions of romantic love and a testament to the hoped-for “love that transcends death.” It’s ironic that Strindberg, despite his avowed hatred for “emancipated” women who had their own careers, kept marrying them; he and Bosse stayed married for about eighteen months, and had divorced by the time the play was finally produced. This irony wasn’t lost on Transparent Theater’s artistic director Tom Clyde, who chose Swanwhite as the new company’s first play in the hope that it would stimulate discussion and debate.

High marks go to Jacob Christfort’s new translation, which is neither stuffy nor trendy. The language of the play is gorgeous, even when meandering without apparent destination. It is visual language, replete with hawks, nettles, and the sea, and Christfort has managed to convey the nuances of Strindberg’s hallucinatory vision without getting lost in abstraction or relying on modern slang. Mostly the actors bear up well under the demanding text, which shifts and flows unpredictably, and while there are definitely some weak spots, the overall presentation is very professional and engaging.

The strongest performances are those of Jorge Rubio as the Prince and Sheri Clyde as the Duchess, Swanwhite’s evil stepmother. Rubio captures the intensity and longing of his character, doomed to love Swanwhite and to lose her to his King, with a sensuous grace and heat. Sheri Clyde by contrast is all cool, smooth viciousness — she resembles nothing so much as some sort of seriously misguided Buddhist — so when she does have the occasional outburst, it’s all the more impressive to watch the calm facade breaking open to reveal untold depths of anger and pain. Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, had some intriguing points to make about the prevalence of evil stepmothers in European folk tales. Bettelheim noted that when death in childbirth was common and a man unlikely to parent children alone, it often happened that a woman would end up raising her husband’s children from an earlier marriage. Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Vasalisa, et al. — in almost every case, there’s a loving but ineffectual father, an absent or dead mother, and an evil stepmother. The dramatic result is that when the heroine makes her journey, she has to do it without the protection of her “real” mother, gaining her adulthood largely by her own tenacity and cleverness. Strindberg’s own mother Ulrica, who was apparently a diffident mother at best, died when he was thirteen. Almost immediately Carl Strindberg married the governess, who was only seven years August’s senior. This mother-loss would perpetually haunt the younger Strindberg, and the resultant anger is a common theme throughout his work. Clyde manages to temper her Duchess with a measure of humanity, making more of her character than the playwright did.

Unfortunately, the young actress playing Swanwhite doesn’t yet have the depth or range for her taxing role, which requires both shining innocence and budding carnality. Kim Jiang pulls off the latter well enough, but her grip of the former is unconvincing. While she certainly looks the part, her physical and vocal control show room for improvement. It’s encouraging that Noah James Butler (the violent young King) has developed tremendously since I last saw him (as a towering Zsa Zsa Gabor in Impact’s TV Sucks My Ass) — handsome, hulking, and angry, he takes what he wants, by force if necessary, further shattering the delicate balance of the Duke’s castle.

Anne Goldschmidt’s set is clean and simple, a castle as envisioned in an IKEA catalog, all cool grays, translucent panels, and mobile furniture. The sound design is a little uneven, made up of strange sounds that may or may not be animal noises and the selective reverberating amplification of Swanwhite and the Prince’s voices. As is to be expected with a brand-new theater, there are logistical problems. The design of the hallways currently ensures that lobby and street noise will get back into the house, for example, and at the performance I saw, a half-dozen people were let in 45 minutes late and took their front-row seats noisily. It threw the audience, and worse yet, it threw some of the actors, who were at an emotionally charged moment in the first act. But these are issues easily enough resolved with noise-deadening curtains and attentive ushering. Despite these concerns, and a certain first-show spottiness, Transparent’s Swanwhite is a bold, exciting beginning for a promising new theater company, and a fitting embodiment of a neglected century-old work.

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