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This year’s Fringe Festival began with a stunning performance of Ivo van Hove’s production of After the Rehearsal/Persona, a play based on two films written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. The actors, struggling (as was the audience) with a theater with minimal air-conditioning on a sweltering night, managed to inhabit their parts flawlessly, drawing us into a world where reality and fiction intermingled.
The play has two parts. The first, After the Rehearsal, takes place in director Hendrik Vogler’s office, inhabited with furnishings from all the plays he’s directed. Vogler (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) is the ultimate director, shaping not only plays on stage but the life he is living as well as his imagined past. Vogler is reading a script when Anna (Gaite Jansen), his latest protégé and daughter of an old friend, enters, all insecurity about how she’s playing her part in August Strindberg’s A Dream Play, another play that toys with reality and fantasy. Vogler reassures and criticizes her at the same time. “You can only be that bad if you have talent,” he tells her.
Rachel (Marieke Heebink), Anna’s mother, enters in the past as if it were happening right now; she commands the stage the moment she enters. As Anna works on her lines, Rachel sexually assaults Vogler, then leaves with a promise of a rendezvous. But instead of going to her, Vogler and Anna do their own dance of seduction. Intriguing, but it reminded me too much of Woody Allen and his incessant justifications of the older man/younger woman relationship.
Vogler as the obsessive director rings true. Anyone who has dated, or been friends with, a director, will recognize the director’s need to control every aspect of life. (My dinner date with a director, who told me not only where to sit, but how to sit and how to eat, signaled a quick end to the relationship.) Vogler takes his need to control to the extreme, not just manipulating his young actress, but his fantasies too. He even imagines the whole of his relationship with Anna and how it will end without actually ever embarking on the relationship. The sexuality is overt and aggressive, expressed as a combination frenzy and fury with the characters rolling around on the floor while grappling with each other.
Beginning with a naked body
Persona fills the second act. It begins with the naked body of Elisabeth Vogler (Heebink, who again dominates the proceedings) lying on a table in a hospital room, her body marked with blue lines. Throughout the whole act, she says no more than two words. Elisabeth, it seems, has become mute after a performance of Elektra, and while her body functions, she no longer speaks to anyone.
Jansen this time plays Alma, Elisabeth’s nurse, who adores, resents, and challenges her as they move from the hospital room to a lakeside villa on an island. Jansen’s performance is nuanced; she carries us along because she is really the only character who speaks, so she draws us into her own hopes and fears. Scholten van Aschat appears briefly as Elisabeth’s husband, whose name is probably Vogler, and Frieda Pittoors plays the doctor who narrates Elisabeth’s condition and wraps up the story.
The set, designed by van Hove’s longtime collaborator Jan Versweyveld, is a significant part of the production. What seems at first a traditional stage with proscenium arch gives way in the second act to a seascape. The proscenium disappears, the walls of the stage fall away into a pool of water surrounding the platform, and the light changes. “There was an opening not only on stage, but for the audience as well,” says Peter van Kraaij, Toneelgroep dramaturge, in a talk after the show.
The actors have to contend not only with the surrounding water but also with a storm that soaks them and the stage completely. As van Kraaij says, van Hove likes to “put actors in a condition where reality comes in.” The reality of the storm on stage and the heat in the audience was certainly present that evening.
The last will be first
Although Bergman’s TV film After the Rehearsal (1984) was written nearly 20 years after Persona (1966), in this production it appears first, and the similarities in names and the use of the same actors in similar roles highlight the connections between the two. Van Kraaij points out that not only did the character named Vogler appear in both films, the recurring themes of motherhood, abortion, and sexuality tie them together as well.
I first encountered Bergman in college, when it was de rigueur to adore his films and talk about them endlessly, seeking nuance and meaning from concepts that we probably weren’t ready for. In that more innocent time, abortion, unbridled sexuality, and madness were not yet standard topics of polite conversation. Seeing this production unlocks levels of Bergman that I could not have been aware of before.
And yet there’s something dated in this interpretation, as well as something modern. The total nudity of the characters could not have been shown before, but their stories have become clichés: the older man/younger woman fantasy, the seduction of women against their will, the prevalence of abortion. There’s a harsh reality to these stories at the same time as an acceptance of things we’ve come to question. After seeing this, perhaps a day or two spent binge-watching old Bergman films might be a good thing.
What, When, Where
After the Rehearsal/Persona. Written by Ingmar Bergman, Ivo van Hove directed the Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Netherlands) production. Set by Jan Versweyveld. September 3-5, 2015 at the 23rd Street Armory, 22 S. 23rd St (at Ranstead), Philadelphia. Presented as part of the 2015 Fringe Festival. fringearts.com or 215-413-1318.
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