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BWW Review: THE GHOST SONATA Haunts at Classical Theatre Company


In the world of drama, the work of August Strindberg (1849 -1912) separates the men from the boys. And, yes, their feminine counterparts. Leave the children at home, not because the subject matter is unsuitable, although it is, but because even the most precocious could never follow the twists and turns of the plot. As one of the characters early on says, in a fit of understatement, "It's complicated."

Strindberg is part of a holy canon of turn-of-the-20th-century playwrights that championed a "naturalism" on the stage, and in writing, stimulating such as Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. We owe much to this tradition, which brought us into the modern era.

True to its mission of bringing to the Houston stage the lesser-known and seldom-produced, The Classical Theatre Company now gives us THE GHOST SONATA, first presented in Sweden in 1908. As director Jon Harvey freely admits, the reason for its rarity is that it is extremely difficult to do; one might even say foolhardy, but that's what this fearless gang of thespians does best.

The first thing that struck me was the amazing depth of the cast, beginning with the tour de force performance of James Belcher as the "Old Man", backed up by Matthew Keenan as "The Student". Every single member of the ensemble played as if the piece depended on him or her alone; there were no missteps.

The black box set by Ryan McGettigan was minimal - only a few pieces of furniture; a drapery or two; nothing extraneous. There was one outstanding hiccup, but it contains a spoiler, sort of. There is a piece of sculpture that is supposed to represent an older character as a beautiful young woman, but the piece used is unmistakably a replica of the Venus de Milo, painted black. The suspension of disbelief is stretched to the breaking point if we are to accept that she posed for it. Any generic sculpture would do; garden centers are full of them. I know it seems like shameless nit-picking, and I really hesitated to comment on it, but detail matters.

Lighting Design by J. Mitchell Cronin was serviceable, and costumes by Macy Lyne contributed a strong emotional and historical background. No make-up artist was credited, but someone did an outstanding job.

A particularly mournful musical accompaniment is provided just off-stage by composer and musician Andy McWilliams.

And now for the play itself. It's complicated. A character identified in the program as "The Student" has just become a hero, having saved several people from a collapsed building, but he is shy and unassuming, and doesn't want the celebrity. Finding a fountain, he asks a girl to wipe his eyes for him, which she reluctantly does, except she isn't there. And that's the first five minutes. A character in a wheelchair, the "Old Man", sees him talking to thin air, and engages him in conversation. It turns out they know each other, and the Old Man is either a family benefactor or someone who has destroyed it. But which?

The premise of the play is that nothing is what it seems to be; the truth is malleable, depending on the point of view of the person telling it. If this concept sounds familiar, you've probably been watching too much news.

There is a handsome house on the square, and The Student has long admired it, imagining what it would be like to live there, but on obtaining an opportunity to enter it, finds that it is nothing like he imagines. In fact, it is a house of horrors, inhabited by ghosts and mummies and generally unbalanced people - not the sort of place where you might expect a happy ending.

Presiding over a dinner party attended mostly by spooks, "The Mummy", played to perfection by Julie Oliver, alternately squawks like a parrot and narrates a tale of Gothic woe that dismays The Student.

There is really no point in telling the story here; it's all there in the script, and therein lies the difficulty.

No matter what character is telling it, the labyrinthine path it takes is rife with false turns and half-truths; you can very easily lose the thread. Exposition oozes like molasses in January as you struggle to keep up. It's the essence of Strindbergian story-telling, and it's not for everybody. Nod off at your peril.

Add to that the director's decision to stage the action in the most surrealistic of terms, filled with stylized mannerisms and over-the-top gestures, and there you have it. Again, the cast is superb at performing these maneuvers, aided admirably by choreographer Jennifer Wood. Movement is critical in the space; one false step would bring disaster.

After two hours, plus intermission, I left the theater feeling as though I had just attended a concert superbly played by an orchestra of virtuoso performers and conducted by a maestro, but I didn't like the music. Strindberg is an acquired taste, but if you are interested in acquiring it, then this is the production for you.

It's complicated.

THE GHOST SONATA by August Strindberg directed by Jon Harvey and presented by Classical Theatre continues through February 26, 2017. 4617 Montrose Boulevard Suite 100. Call 713-963-9665 or email for more information.

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From This Author Gary Laird