What is life? Where is the line between a dream and reality, life and death, heaven and hell? In August Strindberg’s masterpiece of modern theater, from a new translation by Paul Walsh of the chamber play The Ghost Sonata, enjoying an enchanting production at Undermain Theatre, those questions are set about by a Student (Josh Blann) who gets caught up with a peculiar cast of characters.
Structured in three scenes, like the three movements of a sonata, the play traces a faint narrative arc, but, in the modernist tradition that Strindberg played a major role in cultivating, the action is placed amid a great deal of abstraction.
The Student, having spent most of the night saving people from a collapsed house, meets an old man named Hummel (Blake Hackler) who informs the young man that his heroic effort is documented in the paper. After befriending each other, Hummel introduces the cast of characters and their various intersecting relationships by way of informing the Student and sets up a scheme in which the only requirement is that the young man attends the opera and meets the Young Lady (Audrey Ahern).
The second scene revolves around a dinner party which Hummel crashes and unleashes the full scope of his plan, exposing the host and his former romantic nemesis The Colonel (Jerry Crow) as a fraud. In turn, Hummel is exposed by his former master and then servant Bengtsson (Scott Latham).
The final scene centers on the Student and the Young Lady as the Student learns of the haunting nature and otherworldly status of the old house in which much of the action takes place.
There are numerous interpretations of Strindberg’s play. And by his own definition, taking this as a “dream play,” all interpretations are right. So, there really is no end to the potential for study. Some take a political angle and cast the piece as a class struggle play, others take the approach that it’s a fairy tale, and still others hit on the potent feeling of something supernatural given the appearance of ghosts, the strange powers and weaknesses of certain characters and the overall purgatorial feel.
In fact, the idea that a theater piece can inspire so much conversation, analysis and curiosity is exactly what has made it endure over more than a century and why it doesn’t feel out of place with a lot of theater still being made today. In many ways, it has sired a great deal of modern theater.
And Undermain does it right. All the way down to the simple setting and the simple yet creative and traditionally minded lighted, white backdrop. Kudos to director Patrick Kelly and his team on the set and costume design.
The cast, too, is excellent. Hackler, who is not a decrepit old man like his character, but rather young and spry, makes the audience believe his legs have failed him. And there is no limit to the skeevy smarminess that absolutely oozes—from his creepy smile to his unfaltering glare. In a haunting play, he is the scariest part.
Blann embodies the earnest student with an inspiring gusto that is sadly whittled down until at the end; he’s merely a hollowed-out shell of his triumphant beginning. The events of the play and the oppressiveness of the mysterious and dreary old house beats him down until he stands on the brink of being just as broken as the residents of the house.
Any chance to see a classic is one that should be taken. They’re not performed enough these days and it’s to Undermain’s great credit that they decide to take on what really is an audacious project. And so it’s even better that they have given Strindberg’s work such an honest and well-accomplished production.
The Ghost Sonata is melancholy, beginning with great hope and expectation that is eventually torn down and stripped of all its light. And yet, there is something captivating about the world Strindberg’s created. There’s something to connect with, if only ethereally. It’s something to behold. But do it soon, before the death screen shields it from our eyes forever.