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A Strindberg Rarity -- Mr. Bengt's Wife -- An Answer to Ibsen's A Doll's House?

09/19/2013 04:33 pm 16:33:22 | Updated Nov 19, 2013

Often, residing in Manhattan seems to be akin to experiencing the law of diminishing returns. What is the benefit of tolerating high rents, being surrounded by swarming populations of inebriated NYU "students" and accepting the Disneyfictation of Times Square?

But that is not the whole story, by any means. So when I learned of the August Strindberg Repertory Theater group, I trotted down to The Gene Frankel Theater (24 Bond St) with an enthusiasm not often generated these days.

I was not let down.Mr. Bengt's Wife, in its American premiere (translated by Laurence Carr and Malin Tubal) treated me to an insightful view of the master in his early development. A no-holds-barred tale of hysteria, gender expectations and personal redemption, it is the mirror opposite of the mature and organized Ibsen's A Doll's House. The heroine's (Margit) personality diametrically differs from the composed, generous and evolving Nora -- but surprisingly Margit is more believable, despite of or perhaps due to her initially histrionic, selfish and grasping persona.

The women face similar dilemmas. Both are married to men with reversed fortunes, and while Nora faces her problems with dignity, sacrifice and blameless nobility, she ultimately leaves her children motherless, as she slams the door on her family, off to "find herself." Her actions are dramatically justified in that her husband is totally irredeemable, despicably weak of character, allowing the viewer no room to offer him a crumb of sympathy. Even though the deck is stacked, and the message polemic, the play was still ground breaking, one of the true classics of progressive theater.

Mr. Bengt's Wife, in contrast, is a delirious collection of scenes boasting a lyricism approaching madness, with a heightened Shakespearian influence running through its modern language. Bengt is a transitional piece, like one of a great composer finding his voice. And it is a glorious voice he is crafting.

Opening with two young women stashed in a convent, we learn that Margit, an orphan of once considerable means (having met her "Knight" while out roaming the meadows) is now manically planning her escape. While incarcerated, she taunts the Mother Abbess into beating her violently, actually taking pleasure in her physical abuse. Called "The Devil" by the Mother, her captor dubiously allows the priest, Father Francis, to counsel Margit. The girl's rapturous depiction of love unwittingly arouses the formerly closed off male. He is left inflamed, but Margit casually attempts to comfort the Father by reminding him of the Protestant church's decision to allow clergy to marry.

When Bengt (a landowner and savior) comes to rescue Margit, she passionately rips off her habit, breaks her vows and takes on the new vows of a faithful wife, for better or for worse.
Of course, they do not ride off into the sunset. When Bengt goes bankrupt (keeping the information secret) and a child is born, Margit is shocked into reality and the following events turn ugly, but never predictable. Margit passes through many different personality stages, very quickly. The work is deeply emotional -- ultimately leading toward a humanistic conclusion. It has a stylized, episodic element to it, almost dream-like. Directed by Craig Baldwin, the piece was allowed to breathe, but always moved forward in its action.

Kersti Bryan, well suited to the demanding role of Margit, never missed a beat, transforming herself from the high-flying, overly optimistic girl to the bitter and unforgiving wife and then back again, prompting us to ask if she is dangerously unstable or merely a multifaceted woman. Bengt as portrayed by Eric Percival gave a sympathetic and robust performance, but the part would have been better filled by a more dashing Knight, as is referred to in the text. Shawn Fagan's Bailiff, charismatically played off his agenda, advancing the drama to a revealing climax. Matthew Hurley's Priest was gently nuanced and Victoria Blankenship's versatility was well showcased, as she pulled off the dual roles of the severe Mother Abbess and the wise, gossipy Chief Judge's Wife.

The simple black box production was neatly staged with a revolving set by Angelina Margolis, that while innovative, occasionally blocked the viewer's vision of some scenes. Miriam Crowe's lighting and Aryeth Lappin's costume designs served the modest production well. The inclusion of sacred church music heightened the atmosphere, resonating pleasurably by punctuating the action.

Be sure to track www.strindberg.org for dates of this show and the complete series of Strindberg's works.