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Unnatural Acts

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The Difficult Hour

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

By Justin Hayford

Swedish poet, novelist, and dramatist Par Lagerkvist arrived at just the right moment to despise naturalism. He was born in 1891, 14 years after Ibsen's seminal naturalistic drama Pillars of Society appeared and only 4 years after Strindberg took his first step into naturalism with The Father. But by the time Lagerkvist reached his mid-20s, this once radical movement had become the status quo--"dominating the stage almost completely," as Lagerkvist wrote contemptuously in his 1918 essay "Modern Theatre: Points of View and Attack." Naturalism had sucked vibrancy and variety from the once fanciful world of drama, he argued, leaving nothing but "silent trampings on carpets throughout five long acts of words, words, words."

Not only was naturalistic theater gray and lifeless in Lagerkvist's estimation, it was fundamentally hypocritical: actors did a most unnatural thing in ignoring an audience gathered to watch them all evening. Directors expended equal energy trying to make the stage disappear, efforts that reduced Lagerkvist to derisive laughter. "One sits in one of these magnificent, gilded, pleasantly ingenuous playhouses where one really feels the genuine mood and festive anticipation of the theater, and then suddenly the curtain rises, revealing a narrow, brownish, dirty interior on which the director has worked and slaved...to make as exact and natural as possible with rugs on the floor, tables, chairs, fauteuil, chaise lounge, and with people who move slowly and thoughtfully across the stage, carefully and minutely unmasking each other. There is something foolish in this."

Asserting that naturalism was simply "a denial that theatre ought to be theatre," Lagerkvist set out to overturn it. That same year his triptych The Difficult Hour premiered in Düsseldorf (his work wasn't seen in his native land until 1921). These three moody, mesmerizing one-acts explore moments just before or just after death and take place in locales that are light-years from the well-appointed middle-class drawing room. In the first, a man in a tuxedo who believes he's survived a subway crash wanders through an underground tunnel with a self-loathing hunchback whose girlfriend he once stole. In the second, an old man lies comatose on his deathbed while phantasmagoric figures from his past reduce his life to pleasant trivialities. And in the last, a recently deceased boy wanders with a tiny stump of a candle through a dark, formless netherworld, accosted by wretched spirits.

These lyrical, fragmentary pieces encapsulate the mordant pessimism and fervent rebelliousness that swept European artistic circles in the wake of World War I. Lagerkvist may express the utmost reverence for life--the dead boy in the third play rhapsodizes upon the beauty of a summer afternoon in language that would soothe even the most embittered spirit. But the playwright never finds cause for hope. The transition from life to death in these plays is, in the words of translator Thomas R. Buckman, a move from darkness to darkness. The language is spare and exacting, as though the characters, plot, and setting had been stripped to an essence--a snapshot floating in a tumult of dreams and reality.

Most important for Lagerkvist was The Difficult Hour's attempt to overthrow the hegemony of the word. He strove to make what he called "the externals"--lighting, set, costumes, movement, music--communicate as persuasively as the text. His stage directions reveal a fascination with stage images--suggestive rather than literal environments for the plays' action. In the first episode of The Difficult Hour, he calls for a stage crammed with oversize, incongruous images--the gable of a house, a dog rushing forward, two hands stretched out in terror, a large, pale head without hair--careening at oblique angles like shattering glass. For the second one-act he dictates an image worthy of Robert Wilson: a completely dark space except for a shaft of white light downstage and a pool of harsh light upstage, illuminating "a white hospital bed where an elderly man lies motionless as if dead."

Perhaps the most startling aspect of director Lance E. Adams's production of The Difficult Hour for Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company is his almost complete banishment of externals. In place of Lagerkvist's elaborate visuals, Adams provides black curtains surrounding a stage empty save for a black cube and lights that generally wash the entire playing area. Even the character portraits have been watered down. The subway-crash victim in the first one-act, whom Lagerkvist dresses in tails, here wears a nondescript navy suit. In the second, Lagerkvist calls for a bizarre collection of phantoms to stream by in the downstage shaft of light: a carpenter carrying a door, a deformed dwarf with a barrel organ tied to his waist, a giantlike man, a butcher's helper with a skinned and split steer on his back. Not only has Adams done away with the shaft of light, he's turned these surreal visions into ordinary people you might pass on the street.

All but eliminating Lagerkvist's design elements, Adams places the entire burden of his production on the actors and their words, words, words. And strangely enough, he often pushes his cast into psychological naturalism--a problematic choice given the characters' unnatural shifts in thought and emotion. At times the results are disastrous, as in the second one-act: the actors are so stilted and self-conscious that the play's parade of bizarre figures quickly degenerates into nonsense. At other times the results are mixed, as in the first episode. Scott Hamilton Westerman approaches the role of the crash victim with just the right spontaneity and light touch, navigating Lagerkvist's circuitous logic convincingly. By comparison Anthony Wills Jr. as the hunchback is so psychologically rooted that he can't keep pace with those twists and turns. Then again, he's been given the thankless role of respondent to the crash victim's extended monologue.

Only in the third episode does Adams's psychological approach pay off. And this is the first time Lagerkvist's and Adams's images are in sync: the entire piece is lit only by the boy's tiny candle. Clutching it in both hands, Joel Sutliffe creates a monstrous shadow that not only looms threateningly behind him but envelops him up to the waist. The image is pure Lagerkvist: the little bit of light we hold out is no match for the dark menace poised to consume us. Despite being set in hell, this play also contains the most psychologically realistic scenario--we can all identify with being lost and in need of a guide. As the 3,000-year-old cadaver who attempts to befriend the boy, James Eldrenkamp is particularly charming, giving the evening a much needed dose of humor.

For all the shortcomings of this production, it does offer a chance to see Lagerkvist's influential yet rarely produced work. And given the theatricality and extent of his output--he wrote into the 50s--perhaps this staging will inspire other companies to explore his legacy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.

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