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Arcane Endeavors

Rosmersholm isn't one of Ibsen's major works, and that's about the only good thing I have to say about it. Frankly I think it's a bore. And to note that it's not monumentally boring, like some of Ibsen's major dramas, constitutes faint praise. I imagine that the most ardent Ibsen scholars start brewing strong coffee even when their research rolls around to Rosmersholm.

The main characters are John Rosmer and Rebecca West, platonic cohabitors of Rosmersholm estate, and the subject of dirty rumors following the suicide of Rosmer's wife, Beata. Conveying these rumors to Rosmersholm are Dr. Kroll and Mr. Mortensgaard, dueling politicos representing conservative and liberal factions respectively. No mere gossips, Kroll and Mortensgaard use Beata's suicide and the suspicion of Rosmer having extramarital sex with Ms. West to guilt trip, coerce, or otherwise blackmail Rosmer into endorsing their warring political causes. But Rosmer, an apostate ex-priest, is such a libertarian moral anarchist that he finds himself unable to side with either the right or the left. What's more, this political tug-of-war only exacerbates an inner struggle in which Rosmer attempts to overcome the guilty residue left by his wife's suicide and embrace a noble future, as well as, of course, the astringent Ms. West.

The implied conflicts are a sampler of Ibsen's favorites: the individual versus society, past versus future, anarchy versus the status quo, rumor versus truth, guilt versus "a calm and happy sense of innocence," man versus woman . . . Hold on now! How could I have overlooked heredity versus environment? To ignore Ibsen's infantile extrapolation of Darwin is to miss out on some real belly laughs.

West, you see, turns out to be an illegitimate child--the daughter of an alleged prostitute--which causes Dr. Kroll to suggest that she may have inherited her mother's immoral nature. And indeed it's disclosed that West once connived to give Beata the impression that she was having an affair with Rosmer, whom she secretly craved, which indirectly led to Beata's suicide. On the other hand, environment--in the form of Rosmer's ennobling influence--may yet inspire West to morally redeem herself. Who can say? Until the big denouement lumbers into view some two and a half hours later, and Rosmer and West consummate an impromptu marriage by committing a double suicide. "Let's go gladly," West urges Rosmer, and off they go to jump in the millrace. But the housekeeper, Mrs. Helseth, for once without her feather duster, has the last word: "The dead mistress has taken them."

There's that past, always coming back to haunt you, whether it's skeletons in the closet (and half the characters here have them), dead relatives (Beata), or the tar pits of traditional institutions (Rosmersholm, church, state, you name it). Ibsen was tormented by the past, and his whole social philosophy was geared toward escaping it. Last night he got out, and he tormented me.

Rosmersholm is one of Ibsen's naturalist plays, although it looks pretty clumsy these days. I even thought, at one point, that director John DeWitte might be making a little joke--highlighting this clumsiness--by having Mrs. Helseth dust the furniture while delivering the exposition. Far more unrealistic, next to the soap opera plot, are the people in this play. It's hard to imagine people constantly talking in terms of abstract ideas, instead of things and events. OK, I know that Ibsen is the godfather of the "drama of ideas." Still, what can I do but laugh when Rosmer proposes with the line "I will not go through life with a corpse on my back." And then, West turns him down, not because he used the wrong approach, but because she's on some quest for personal integrity. Are these supposed to be real people? Personally, I'm inclined toward Frank Wedekind's opinion that Ibsen was a breeder of a lethargic zoo of domestic animals.

But, to be fair, this is also a transitional play for Ibsen--a movement away from social condemnation, turning inward toward that great spiritual turmoil of the soul. The Master Builder, a later, far superior play, illustrates the completion of this transition. Rosmersholm is also one of Ibsen's more autobiographical plays, intellectually if not experientially. Rosmer's obsession with moral purity in a compromising world, his oversensitivity to public opinion, even his habit of self-criticism--all reflect Ibsen's personal life. Ibsen seems to have been brooding during this period, his art straining against what had become the artificial limitations of naturalism, elements of symbolism creeping in. The result is understandably confused--pieces of Ibsen in a bucket.

The current production by Arcane Endeavors is stultified, and it's most apparent in the acting. None of the characters shows signs of development. Michael Minter (Rosmer) is little more expressive than a ventriloquist's dummy. His favorite of a small repertoire of expressions is a certain pulling back of the head and bulging of the eyes, indicating surprise or consternation. Linda Sterling (West) tries harder, but only comes off as a wooden Indian painted in gaudier colors. Bill McMillan makes two brief but regrettably precious appearances as Brendel, Rosmer's drunken former tutor, which turn into lame and incoherent displays of low comedy. Best of all, in an unaware sort of way, is Denny Balish's performance as Mrs. Helseth--she moves like one of those animatrons at Disney World. Balish may just have something of an interpretation there, although I don't want to encourage it.

Obviously, DeWitte doesn't pull together an ensemble here, or even inspire unassimilated bits of grandstanding. Nor does he inspire the audience--with tension, suspense, or dramatic action. The actors don't command the stage. Like livestock, they get stuck in corners, or circumnavigate the sofa in their frustration, or are blocked into inert confrontations that are about as exciting as fence posts in action. Once, during a big alienation scene between Rosmer and West, the actors rebuke each other from opposite sides of the stage, across 40 feet of Victorian drawing room. Sure, something's come between them, but not a parking lot.

If anyone can stage Rosmersholm and make it even mildly interesting, I wish that genius would move to Chicago and take on some other, more worthy project. I can't understand why anyone--who's not a friend of the cast--would sit through this show. And if you did know someone in the cast, and had to go backstage afterward, what could you say? "That was heavy"? Ibsen isn't heavy; he's overweight. "I really enjoyed it"? No one "enjoys" Ibsen. You're supposed to be provoked or challenged, but you'd sound damn silly saying, "You really challenged me, man." Maybe it'd be best to imitate the equivocal master himself with something fervently ambiguous like "You should have been in the audience."

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