Henrik Ibsen’s’ classic play Ghosts provides a considerable acting challenge for the five second-year students in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s current production in the Cook Theatre. But it provides something of a challenge for the audience, too.
That’s because of the material, to some extent; while issues of infidelity, venereal disease, incest and assisted suicide may not be quite as shocking to audiences today as they were back in the 1880s, when Ibsen’s work was first performed, they’re still heavy going. But it’s also because of the pacing and approach of Andrei Malaev-Babel’s direction. At first the deliberately slow movements and speeches of the actors, especially Carla Corvo as the widowed Mrs. Alving, struggling with her profligate late husband’s legacy, may feel appropriate. After all, she’s been living a life of constraint and secrecy for years, keeping from everyone in her household and the small, isolated Norwegian community in which she lives the truth about Captain Alving’s dissolute life, and that habit of restraining her emotions is now second nature to her.
But after a time, that pacing, especially during sequences that have Corvo picking up household objects and moving them purposelessly around, or stretching herself out languorously on one or another item of furniture, begins to feel ponderous. And the cluelessness of her “advisor,” Pastor Manders (Jonathan Grunert), while meant to be a commentary on established religion and moral hypocrisy, is, in this production, at times so irritating and, to a modern ear, tone deaf that it’s simply not believable.
That’s not to say that some of Ibsen’s original outrage at the misery following the strictures of society can cause in a case like the Alvings’ doesn’t still reverberate. We see it especially with Helene Alving’s 20-something artist son, Osvald (Marc Bitler), for whom we do feel some sympathy as he learns the truth about his father and his own threatening illness. And, conversely, we get a rather welcome dollop of opportunistic cynicism on the part of carpenter Jakob Engstrand (Joe Ferrarelli), who knows just how to manipulate the pastor to achieve his own ends. He’s not as successful with his daughter and Helene’s maid, Regina (Alex Pelletier), who’s onto his schemes and has ambitions of her own to improve her station, which impel her to occasionally drop French phrases into her conversation.
Chris McVicker’s set and lighting and Sofia Gonzalez’s costume design help to set the right mood for the period, characters and subject matter, with a sense of doom and gloom ever present. And I’ve no doubt that working in Ghosts has taught the Conservatory actors some valuable lessons. Whether audience members will feel that they have drawn anything worthwhile from the production depends on their individual patience levels.
Ghosts continues through Jan. 20; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.