Intimate Theatre

at the Swedish American Museum Center

There are many ways to dishonor the dead. Some push over gravestones. Others spread lies that the dead are helpless to correct. The folks at Intimate Theatre have chosen a very direct route. They have taken the lesser work of a great playwright and performed it badly.

The play is August Strindberg’s potboiler Intoxication, written several years after he emerged from the complete mental breakdown he called his “Inferno crisis.” Set in the hotels and cafes of Parisian bohemia, Intoxication is a brooding, angst-ridden work about a rising playwright named Maurice who abandons his common-law wife and their little girl for a seductive sculptress, Henriette. When his child later dies, Maurice is accused of the child’s murder, the public turns against him, and his love affair with Henriette sours. Only when Maurice turns to the church, as Strindberg had, does his life improve.

This intensely didactic and autobiographical work premiered in 1899 in Stockholm to almost universal acclaim. Even the king of Sweden, who loathed Strindberg, loved the play. It’s not hard to see why. True, the plot is a bit melodramatic and Strindberg’s religious message is at times annoyingly overt–every scene contains some biblical reference; but the story unfolds gracefully, and the characters are as complex and real as you’d expect from the author of The Father and Miss Julie. Ironically, Strindberg greeted this much-needed success glumly, noting in his diary, “It brings me no joy.”

One wonders how the temperamental Strindberg would have greeted Intimate Theatre’s awkward, at times sub-community-theater production of his work. (This from a theater that believes it’s honoring Strindberg by taking its name from the theater he founded.) Certainly he would not have been pleased to see how the weaker elements of his play–most notably the heavy-handed religious discussions (“O Cross! Our only hope!” “Is it our only one?” “Our only sure one”)–overpower the subtler touches. Nor would the pioneer in naturalistic theater have been pleased to hear how artificial his dialogue sounds when delivered by actors who don’t know how to sound like they know what they mean. Even lines as simple as “Look here, this isn’t a playground” and “Put the flowers down, dear” sound as if they were learned phonetically.

This is especially true of Ruth Jacobson, who looks right for the part of Maurice’s wife but speaks all of her lines in the same flat, unreal mutter. Similarly, Gregg Mierow, playing the kindly priest who leads Maurice to salvation, spouts his otherworldly advice with such lack of conviction that he seems more a parody of Christian humility than a paragon of it. That this squeaky-voiced parish mouse manages to bring the lambs back into the fold seems nothing short of miraculous.

Part of the problem may be Truda Stockenstrom’s “new” translation. It can’t be easy to deliver with conviction lines such as “They say the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” or “There are crimes not mentioned in the criminal code, and they are the worst.” But I hesitate to blame Stockenstrom for the awkwardness; I don’t know Swedish and can’t know where Strindberg ends and Stockenstrom begins.

Yet I think it’s most likely that Strindberg’s lines seem unreal because the cast never learned how to deliver 19th-century dialogue with conviction. Director Max MacAdam probably never thought they’d have to, since the time of the story has been moved from fin de siecle Paris to 1950s Paris (which frees the production from the need to procure expensive turn-of-the-century costumes). Unfortunately, no one bothered to update the dialogue, so all the actors sound as if they learned English reading badly translated plays.

Oddly enough the one successful performance in the piece is delivered by Stockenstrom. As the femme fatale who undoes Maurice’s life, the tall, smoky-voiced Stockenstrom plays with more conviction and, no surprise, understanding of the material than the rest of the cast together. Her seduction of Maurice halfway through the play is so steamy and alive that it turns a dull exercise in museum theater into a real drama. Too quickly, however, it reverts to being what it was before–a bad rehearsal.