Theater Review: Festen at the Gamm
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
It's tempting to say no, to idealize a human essence that may transcend language and geography. It's tempting to hope for art that moves without passport from place to place with the help of sympathetic, keen-minded translation to retain its truths.
And perhaps we can find examples of when this occurs (Shakespeare comes to mind). But Festen, the newest production at the Gamm that has been acquired from a dark, Nordic culture, may not have cleared customs.
Darkness in Denmark
On the heels of the Gamm's critically acclaimed, moving production of Hamlet, there are tempting comparisons to be made with things being rotten in Denmark, as Festen cracks open a wealthy Danish family's tightly held, darkest secrets. But that is where the comparisons between the two productions must end.
Festen is an English adaptation of the 1998 Danish film of the same name ("festen" translates to "celebration") that gained critical acclaim and launched the Dogme 95 film movement. The film is an unstinting look at a patriarch's 60th birthday celebration during which, through a long, Danish summer night, a family engages in a series of repressed confrontations, most of which occur in front of guests, at a long, formal dinner table.
(The Gamm has asked that the secrets themselves are not revealed by critics, so we will leave the context there.)
From screen to stage
The 2004 dramatic adaptation by English playwright David Eldridge respects much of the film's stark dialogue as well as plot details, but condenses the action into one claustrophobic set that must convey a grand hotel in the Danish countryside. Scenes that take place in three different bedrooms in the film, for example, all occur on a small platform with one small bed. And while in the film, various characters
This kind of tight staging often suits the literal space as well as the dramatic intelligence of the Gamm's productions. Paul, for example, worked beautifully in the theater's intimate, spare design. In Festen, though, it seems cramped, and creates dramatic confusion. At one point, the family's three adult siblings (Steve Kidd, Alexander Platt, and Casey Seymour Kim) interact with other characters in three separate but simultaneous scenes in that tiny bedroom space. Although smartly blocked by director Tony Estrella, it's like stacking the three rings at the circus. You can't really keep an eye on what's happening, much less with whom.
Torment, manipulation, deception
The action does settle when the cast is at the banquet table, but unfortunately, it's here where the Gamm runs aground of what may be an intractable dramatic problem. The bluntness of the dialogue (especially accusations voiced by Steve Kidd's Christian) and the terse responses not only from his siblings but his parents (Sandra Laub as Else and Will Lyman as Helge) just don't feel right on this stage. In the Danish film, every line of torment, manipulation, and deception slides cold and barbed from the actors' mouths, and the mounting revelations drive the story forward despite its tight social constraints. Here, though, despite there being more clamor, there's less drama. The cast seems uneasy with the inherent tension of horrible things being said in polite company (one of the most unsettling aspects of Festen), and so the Gamm's version loses that crucial element of the film.
Is it a question of this cast having specific shortcomings, or is it something larger? Are American actors actually capable of embodying these kinds of tightly wound, repressed characters? It's interesting to note that Festen enjoyed a long run and critical success in London, but closed quickly in New York. And while the Gamm's cast is somewhat uneven, it's hard to imagine even the brightest American talent conquering this particular drama. With broad vowels and overt inclination, the American actor best inhabits the drama of slow boil to explosion. Our homegrown tragedies tend to blow off a family's doors, such as in the great works of Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller. Not keep them shut, as this play does.
Again, there are notable performances here. Alexander Platt, so taut and beatific in last season's Paul, is soft and dangerously volatile as the black sheep younger brother, Michael. Steve Kidd has several truly fine moments as Christian, the family's broken truth-teller. Will Lyman, a well-known actor from the Boston scene with deep TV experience, brings a steely edge to the patriarch Helge, but again, it feels more like a Shepard creation than one from the twisted forests of Scandinavia.
And it may be that Festen is a creation that must stay in those forests, where the locals speak the language. That for this particular tragedy, no matter how universal its secrets may be, we must respect its provenance and leave it to the Danes to reveal it in their own tongue.
Festen, through February 12 at the Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St, Pawtucket, 723-4266, www.gammtheatre.org.
- Theater Review: Paul at The Gamm Theatre
- Theater Review: Hamlet at The Gamm
- Theater Review: The Good Doctor at 2nd Story Theatre
- Theater Review: Trinity’s Yellowman
- Theater Review: A Doll’s House at The Gamm Theatre