BWW Reviews: HARMSAGA Makes its US Premiere at the Kennedy Center World Stages Festival
As part of the Kennedy Center's World Stages, International Theater Festival, the National Theatre of Iceland, presented this tragic tale of the love and loss in a riveting 90-minute performance in the Terrace Theater. Written by Icelandic playwright Mikael Torfason, the play starts as the audience arrives: two characters frozen in a moment of vulnerability, the man, half naked and clutching a phone with a look of despair, and the woman, standing in the kitchen dressed for a night on the town.
The program notes indicate that "Harmsaga is a contemporary love story about everything that went right, and, perhaps more importantly, about everything that went wrong." The word "harmsaga" is Icelandic for tragedy, and tragedy is an apt title for this heart breaking tale of a young couple who fall apart in front of the audience.
As the play starts properly, we are on the eve of the couple's child's birthday, and the woman, Sigrún, is desperately trying to make a cake, while the man, Ragnar, is trying to save what little relationship he has left with his wife. As the rest of the evening unfolds, the play effectively switches from present to past with a seamlessly executed lighting and sound shift. We see the couple in the present as a series of affairs and distrust unravel their lives, and we glimpse at brief moments of their past as the meet at a disco one evening to their wedding, and the birth of their child.
At the center of the piece, the two actors deliver a beautiful and heart wrenching performance. The female of the piece, Elma Stefanía Ágústsdóttir is very effective as the woman who married too young, had children that she regretted, and played her part in the destruction of her marriage. Ágústsdóttir is stunning in the game she plays with her husband, to either lure him back, or push him out. Snorri Engilbertsson plays the volatile man who shares his part in the collapse of the relationship. Engilbertsson portrays this frenzied and self-harming man with great gusto and conviction.
While the performances of this piece are well executed, the piece suffers slightly from the dialogue. I attribute this to the theory that this play is probably written in the native Icelandic (there was no indication whether this is a translation or not), but I suspect that the dialogue gets a little lost in translation. The story is understandable, but at times the dialogue gets in the way of the action, and this may not be an issue if performed in the native tongue. Torfason tells a riveting story, and could actually benefit from fleshing out the backstory some. He correctly chooses to start the play in the middle of the breakup and throughout the evening we flash back to different moments that became the impetus of the collapse, but I feel that we needed more, especially with the extreme emotion displayed, there needs to be more "why" this came to be.
At the helm, director Una Thorleifsdottir pushed her actors outside of a safe zone which worked very well in this piece, and she used the Ikea-furnished apartment set (designed by Eva Signý Berger) very naturally.
The Kennedy Center is to be commended for their dedication to work from outside of the United States. The entire festival is full of wonderful pieces with an international flair, this one more globally than last season's Nordic Cool, and the National Theater of Iceland is another great theater to add to the legendary history of the Kennedy Center.
Warning: the show includes mature themes, including violence, language, and sex.
Photos Credit: EDDI