Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: A Beautiful 1888 Tale of Women On The Verge

By Ed Malin

Ducdame Ensemble is now presenting The Enchantment at HERE Arts Center. Lucy Jane Atkinson directs Tommy Lexen’s adaptation/ translation of this Swedish play. The author, Victoria Benedictsson, was a major figure in late 19th Century Swedish realism.  Sadly, she killed herself shortly after completing this play in 1888, just prior to and providing an inspiration for other notable works of the time such as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Strindberg’s Miss Julie. She published several proto-feminist works, mostly under the male alias Ernst Ahlgren.
photo by Katrin Talbot
A community of Swedish artists are in Paris (see: Ibsen’s Ghosts for another take on this).  The beautiful Louise (Fiona Mongillo) is convalescing in her step-brother Viggo’s (Paul Herbig) studio where she meets and falls in love with Gustave Alland the sculptor (Matthew DeCapua). Gustave is all about freedom to make art, so the love he wants is free love, love from which he can move on as needed (and indeed we encounter one of his former lovers, Erna).  Gustave says this in a very up-front manner and she says she understands.  As it turns out, she understands that she will eventually not be able to deal with the loss of this man.  Young people will say anything, I suppose, but here we are 130 years later and men and women do not have the same access to education and selfhood. In the world of this play, a woman who is not artist can chase an artist, but she is destined to fail. (Gustave is working on a new group of sculptures entitled “destiny”.) Louise references Scandinavian folklore by implying that troll magic is drawing her closer to Gustave.  Other couples within the circle of artists contrast with Louise’s attitude.   Lilly (Claire Curtis-Ward) loves Viggo and doesn’t know if it will last, but been persuaded to marry him and settle down in Sweden. He will begin a respectable job he hates, and she will be a housewife with few opportunities to express herself. Is this success?  Another couple has been fighting at parties for years.  Bergström (Michael J. Connolly) constantly accuses Erna (Jane May) of not being loving enough. He also curses her, declaring that she should have been a man.  If the author seems to have no faith in socially acceptable relationships, this is probably because she was married off in her teens to a much older man and, at the time of her death, was having an affair with prominent Danish critic Georg Brandes.  The man (such as Brandes) always had the ability to leave a woman and move on, while the woman was mainly raised to support a man. Victoria Benedictsson has structured the heroine’s posturing, suicide and death very similarly to her own.  In 2017, A Doll’s House Part 2 is playing to acclaim on Broadway. Without giving away the plot of that play either, let’s look at an independent woman leaving a man in those days as very theoretical. Madame Rachilde, the scandalously successful Parisian literary personality of the same time period (author of “Why I am not A Feminist”, “Madame de Sade”, etc.), did it all with her husband’s financial backing.  The tension between health and illness, love and loss, life and death for Lousie is palpable.
Fortunately, in this century, a symposium at Columbia University has examined Victoria Benedictsson’s full body of work (including what she wrote under her pen name, Ernst Ahlgren) and refused to see her as merely the unhappy love slave of Georg Brandes.
Adrienne Carlile’s costumes are captivating.  Women have flowy dresses and spend a lot of time pouting in them astride sofas.  One male role,  Lind, is played by a woman (Arianna Karp) who is a pleasantly aggressive and duplicitous colleague of Gustave. I think the point that director is trying to make is that for foreign artists in Paris Art City, male privilege was all they had; but on the other hand, this is not a total denunciation of men or love, but a nuanced tightrope walk.   Mary Hamrick ‘s sets nicely delineate drawing rooms and patios, allowing the audience to observe private conversations. Morgan Zipf-Meister lighting gives us some insight into the hopeful side of art and love and the troll cave of powerlessness.