One could hardly call August Strindberg a family man. “Family”, he once wrote, “[is] the home of all social evil.”
In his 1907 play, “The Ghost Sonata,” in which “family” means vampires, soul-selling slaves, and mummies who think they are parrots, he certainly puts his money where his mouth is. The visceral reaction reigns supreme here, and Strindberg’s fixation with the pain of family provides the basis for this macabre and bizarre drama.
Director Timmia Hearn-Feldman’s ’13 interpretation remains true to the original. With limited resources and some inconsistencies, there are definitely several shortcomings, but the production succeeds in making the play engaging for a college-age audience.
“Sonata,” a classic example of a chamber play (which, by definition, requires very little space and money to produce), showcases a dreamlike world — or, more appropriately, a neverending nightmare that is brought about by Strindberg’s dark conception of a family.
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When the manipulative but seemingly trustworthy Jacob Hummel (Gabriel DeLeon ’13) promises an impressionable young student (Justin Dobies ’12) the opportunity to have the woman (Isabel Siragusa ’11) and the home that he has yearned for, the student accepts, unaware of the web of sins into which he is about to walk. When he finally enters the ornate apartment that has been the object of his desire, he finds a family literally drained of life.
The weight of all the secrets in the house is compounded by the walking corpses that inhabit the space. The once beautiful lady of the house (Rachel Payne ’12), who the other characters refer to as “a mummy,” thinks that she is a parrot. The family is served by Bengtsson (Derek DiMartini ’13), a vampire, and a cook who sucks the nourishment out of their food (Calista Small ’14). The beautiful daughter performs all of the household duties, only to have her efforts undone by the servants. Her father, the Colonel (McKay Nield ’13), lives a false and empty life. And Hummel is not the generous benefactor he initially purports to be.
All of the actors give solid performances but it is DeLeon who steals the show. From his engaging diction to his masterful attention to often-neglected details (a trembling hand, for example), his interpretation of the shadowy Hummel was far and away the most persuasive of the night. His monologue in the apartment, in which he confronts the remnants of his past, is incredibly moving. Although Hummel remarks with conviction, “Silence conceals nothing,” his words reveal the truth. Nield was also excellent as both the Colonel and Johannson, transitioning with ease from the false nobleman to a soulless slave. Calista Small was particularly commendable for her talent in rendering emotion, often with no dialogue, in a challenging quadruple role (milkmaid, “dark lady,” old woman and cook).
Despite the performers’ success, the illusion was not entirely convincing. Much of this was due to production issues — in what would have otherwise been an utterly terrifying rendition, Small’s interpretation of the cook was undermined by small aspects of her costuming. Similarly, while at times the simplicity of the set was refreshing, at others it served to hinder the comprehension of the plot, and audience members unfamiliar with the work would likely have a hard time following the story. While these are small points, they distract enough to diminish the force and effect of the larger themes of decay and stagnancy.
Suspending disbelief in the play, with its unnaturalistic style and surreal plot, is already so difficult that otherwise negligible flaws only heighten the audience’s incredulity. Additionally, the length of the play (it comes in at just over an hour) means that certain avenues are left unexplored for the sake of brevity. When the student makes a call on his cell phone in a world that otherwise resembles 1907 to a tee, the potential for anachronism is briefly examined, but never picked up again.
Strindberg’s style is not for everyone and many may leave the theater dissatisfied, but given the short duration of the play, even those who don’t connect won’t sacrifice too much of their free time.