Strindberg's THE PELICAN and ISLE OF THE DEAD Will Have World Premieres Together at TNC
Sweden's greatest modernist playwright, August Strindberg, returned from the Continent to Stockholm in 1906, where he lived out his last seven years. There he wrote "The Pelican" for his Intimate Theater in 1907 and "Isle of the Dead" (Toten-Insel) immediately after as its prologue. The latter was unpublished until 1918 and rediscovered in the early 60s, when it was found and promptly dismissed as an incomplete fragment. The two plays were finally reunited by Ingmar Bergman in a radio version in 2003. It was his last dramatic production. From February 6 to 22 August Strindberg Rep, a resident company of Theater for the New City (TNC), will bring the two plays to the stage together for the first time in history. It will also be the world premiere of new English translations of both plays by Robert Greer, Artistic Director of Strindberg Rep, who helms the production.
In "Isle of the Dead," a middle-school teacher who has died in his sleep wakes up to find an enlightened spirit sitting next to him. This spirit tries without success to explain to the teacher that he no longer need concern himself with such mundane matters as grading papers before class. Finally, the spirit instructs the benighted teacher to watch a play with him. The play is "The Pelican."
In "The Pelican," a vivacious young widow has eyes for her newly-married son-in-law. The moral turpitude of it is driving her son to drink. Throughout her children's lives, the widow denied them food and firewood, unwilling to "squander" money that she is actually stealing for herself. The son finds a letter from his late father recounting her cruelty -- how will he avenge her betrayal? The play's title comes from an erroneous myth of nature: the mother pelican feeds her chicks ground-up fish from her beak, but in earlier times, this was thought to be her own blood, making the bird a mistaken example of charity and sacrifice. In a wicked note of irony, the mother was honored with verses about the pelican's sacrifice at her daughter's wedding. The production will be set in 1927, twenty years after the play premiered in Sweden.
Robert Greer explains that Strindberg had gone through a variety of religious experiences and three marriages and was looking back on his life, but not writing autobiographically. In fact, "The Pelican" is his least autobiographical play. His interest was to explore the source of folly and misunderstanding. These two plays together express Strindberg's hope for coming to peace with, if not understanding, his life. Of the two plays, "Isle of the Dead" is the naturalistic one. "The Pelican" is like a fairy tale or parable with an evil mother, a son, a daughter and a son in law. They correspond roughly to the deceased teacher's family members who are discussed in "Isle of the Dead." As he witnesses "The Pelican," the teacher sees a fairy tale on the evils of mankind in the hope that it will improve him. It's like a deceased person in purgatory seeing a very naturalistic parable for his edification. Greer compares Strindberg's device to medieval churches that have paintings of torments of the saints on the wall, but the device is turned inside-out because ordinarily, "Isle of the Dead" would be the fantasy play.
The idea of producing the plays onstage together dates back to 2013 when it was suggested to Robert Greer by Magnus Florin, who at the time was on the advisory board of August Strindberg Rep. Florin had produced Bergman's radio version of the two plays and had been chief dramaturge of the Royal Theater in Stockholm. In consultations with Greer, Florin explained that to his knowledge and research, the two plays had never been mounted together onstage as Strindberg intended, and that this would be a rare opportunity in Strindberg's enormous oevre for a true world premiere.
"The Pelican" will be performed by Strindberg Rep core company members Ryan Feyk, Natalie Menna, Bailey Newman and Mary Tierney and guest artist Jay William Thomas. "Isle of the Dead" will be acted by company core members Gabe Bettio and Brad Fryman.
Stage Manager is Jose F. Ruiz. Set design is by Mark Marcante. Lighting design is by Alexander Bartenieff. Prop design is by Litza Colon. Costume design is by Janet Mervin.
August Strindberg Repertory Theatre (www.strindbergrep.com), under the direction of Robert Greer, is committed to productions of the author's best, and less often performed, plays in new translations and interpretations that illuminate the plays for today's American audience. That is why TNC has taken this repertory into its family. Robert Greer writes, "The Strindberg Rep is deeply grateful to Crystal Field for having made us her newest resident company. Crystal's support of new plays (and plays newly translated) has been a godsend to us. Her knowledge and experience of theater is a beacon guiding us and her unflagging devotion to the art of the drama and its artists is a role model for leaders of all cultural institutions."
Mr. Greer has directed 14 Strindberg plays with the company to-date. He has also staged English-language premières of numerous contemporary Scandinavian playwrights, including Sweden's Marianne Goldman, Helena Sigander, Cecilia Sidenbladh, Oravsky and Larsen, Hans Hederberg, Margareta Garpe and Kristina Lugn; Denmark's Stig Dalager and Norway's Edvard Rønning. He has also directed classics by Victoria Benedictsson, Laura Kieler, Anne Charlotte Leffler and Amalie Skram. His productions have been presented at the Strindberg Museum and Strindberg Festival, Stockholm; Edinburgh and NY Fringe Festivals, Barnard College, Columbia University, Rutgers, UCLA; Miranda, Pulse and Theater Row Theaters, La MaMa, Manhattan Theatre Source, Tribeca Lab, Synchronicity, TSI, BargeMusic; and The Duplex in LA. He has also directed plays by Mario Fratti, Sartre and Corneille here in New York. He is a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, Actors' Equity; the Strindberg Society, the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study and Swedish Translators in North America.
Theater for the New City is located at 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street). Performances are February 6 to 22, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $18 general admission and $15 seniors & students. Box office is www.theaterforthenewcity.net, (212) 254-1109.