The Ghost Sonata, Op. 3

15 October 2012 in Theater

On a whim, I decided to go see Cutting Ball Theater’s production of August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata, one of five chamber plays in repertory at the Exit Theater on Taylor. The venue is the tiniest of spaces (60 to 70 seats), which made for one of the most engaging, up close, and intimate performance experiences I’ve had in a long time. (Two days prior, I was perched away far away in the balcony at San Francisco Opera.) At the Exit, the size of the venue supports Strindberg’s style so well: there is an abbreviated quality to his storytelling, and though the characters do not lack emotional intensity, they seem sketched as if in outline with a dark pencil. There is a creep factor to this: those outlines invite the viewer to step in and become the possessed old man, the young student, the lovely daughter, the crazy old lady.

The structure of the play likewise demands your faith before you’re sure if you’re willing to offer it, and there’s never any going back; the three concise acts march inevitably forward and become more confining, from the street, into the house, and finally, to a special room in the house. Strindberg works the small scale, drawing the audience in, and then–once he’s got you–he provides subtext and metaphor to deepen and enrich the situation. I was immediately captivated and amused by the macabre flavor of the play, but found myself, the next day, thinking more seriously about the characters’ relationships and what it all meant. It wasn’t just a simple spook story to shrug aside.

Things are set in motion from the start by the old man, Hummel, who feels he’s been wronged and wants his just desserts. He enlists the “help” of an optimistic young student. The student falls in love with a young woman (she happens to be part of the family that consumes Hummel’s thoughts), and the old man seizes the opportunity to join the family for a dinner party. Once we arrive in the house, it seems that every character holds fast to a personal agenda or is otherwise hung up on some matter of the past, and no one is capable of moving beyond their situation. Like in Chekhov, the inaction is what does everyone in.

Repeated motifs throughout the play heighten a certain quality that I enthusiastically described afterwards as “twisted.” Strindberg keeps women behind windows, hides people in closets (they “see nothing and [are] not to be seen”), and generally covers things up (people die behind a Japanese screen). When, in the third scene, the young lovers exchange poetic sentiments about flowers, it also rings false. Their dialogue, which should be romantic, is a facade. It does nothing more than echo the nonsensical chirps and caws of the senile old woman (she mimics a parrot, except when—wise fool—she speaks a great truth). The sound design helped connect all the various strange facets of Strindberg’s world: reverberant glass bells punctuated the symbolic moments and lent a dream-like quality to the proceedings.

The Ghost Sonata does remind one of chamber music, where a skeleton crew often creates musical meaning equal to that found in an orchestral work. There can be such intensity in “small” forms. This intensity, as it played out Saturday night, felt like a warning, against stagnancy and against being resigned to one’s situation. I am insanely curious to see what transpires in the other four plays!

p.s. I was initially surprised at the period costume and set design. It was tastefully done, but perhaps my expectations had set off on another course while I waited pre-show in the lobby, watching a video projection of Strindberg Twitter feeds. I may not have been the only one who felt the contemporary resonance of the script: everyone in the theater laughed when the young student quipped, “I don’t care for publicity. … The art of belittling is so highly developed.”

p.p.s. I really wish, too, that he had sung the ending lines of Act 2 and Act 3.