EgoPo Classic Theater may be Philadelphia’s most intellectually bracing company. Artistic Director Lane Savadove builds seasons around specific playwrights and ideas, consistently going beyond the routine and canonical. Often, I’ve left an EgoPo show and continued thinking about it for hours.
Sometimes, the ideas work. Sometimes, they don’t. Both scenarios are on full display in The Lady from the Sea, directed here by Brenna Geffers.
Lady, the second installment in EgoPo’s season devoted to Henrik Ibsen, is a typically bold choice, far less familiar than the handful of Ibsen plays that are regularly done. Audiences who know those more famous works – Doll House and Hedda Gabler, especially – will find familiar themes here, notably Ibsen’s trenchant explorations of how women can simultaneously be in the thrall of male power, and at the same time profoundly disappointed in how often these same males are diminished and disappointing.
Yet Lady is very different from those naturalistic works. Here we have Ibsen the symbolist, painting a portrait of deepest psychological mystery. (Lady is the story of Ellida Wangel, a beautiful but troubled young woman torn between a prosaic marriage to the much older Dr. Wangel, and a remembered love affair with a seaman. Throughout, Ellida’s fundamental identity is split between the earth and the sea.) The familiar territory of social reform is here also, to be sure, as Ibsen explores how the women of this world – Ellida, and also Wangel’s young daughters, Bolette and Hilde – can forge an independent life for themselves. But the tone is elliptical and ambiguous.
Lady is generally thought to be a heavy drama, but at EgoPo, director Geffers lifts the lid off. The pace is brisk, the tone casually contemporary (it’s sometimes at odds with a stiff, uncredited translation). The flip edge to some of the acting takes getting used to, but it pays dividends, notably in the scenes with Bolette (played by K. O. DelMarcelle) and Hilde (Lee Minora), who for once here seem like genuine young girls. Bolette’s spirited discussion with her former tutor, Arnholm, works particularly well – audiences will be surprised and delighted at how modern the conversation feels. (Actor Ross Beschler as Arnholm is especially good here, with a square-jawed earnestness that is just right.)
There are other quirky directorial choices. The small but significant supporting role of Ballestad, written as male, here is reassigned as female (played by actress Colleen Corcoran). It’s not what Ibsen intended, and it does change the balance – but in the plus column, it sharpens the sense that we are viewing this world the way women see it, and ultimately it’s a change that works. I’m less enthusiastic about the decision to have some of Ellida’s memory monologues enacted behind a scrim curtain – it’s distracting and over-literal.
Geffers’ most controversial change is likely to be the addition of a visual tableau that changes the focus of the play – from Ellida to Hilde. Again, it’s not Ibsen – but it’s clever, and there’s some justification for it. (The character of Hilde recurs in Ibsen’s Master Builder, where in fact she has some of the same symbolic importance that Ellida has here.) The basic idea behind the set – a gauzy grey world that is more fantasy than reality – is also on point, though in the intimate Christ Church Neighborhood House, under too-bright lighting, it lacks magic.
Ultimately, though, Lady stands or falls on its Ellida, one of the great female roles in modern drama. (Vanessa Redgrave was famous for it, and her febrile intensity is just what it needs.) Here, the lovely Genevieve Perrier – petite, dark, feisty – plays against type. She’s lively and charismatic, but too much of an earthy presence to suggest her secrets. In the end, this is a thought-provoking Lady but one that fails to capture the play’s profound, enigmatic heart.
Through March 2, EgoPo Classic Theater at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., 267-273-1414, egopo.org
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