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A CurtainUp Review
Cries and Whispers

By AndrewAsh

Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. óAgnes
Cries and Whispers

C. Nietvelt and K. Smulders (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)
Agnes (Chris Nietvelt) is dying, and everyone else is pretty miserable too. So begins the bleak vision of Cries and Whispers, coming to us from the Netherlands for just five days at BAM.

The production has a complicated genesis. Cries and Whispers was one of the finest films of Ingmar Bergman, the great Swedish film director. After his death in 2007 the rights for his movie scripts became public and Dutch director Ivo van Hove immediately began work on a stage adaptation, which has finally come to fruition in this painstakingly polished production. Itís performed in Dutch, with English subtitles, and it features an elaborate set design that incorporates video installations. So the final product, for an American audience, is a highly stylized Swedish art film, translated into Dutch, adapted into an even more stylized stage production, and then re-translated into English. Heady stuff.

Itís not easy to watch, either. Agnes and her sisters (Janni Goslinga and Halina Reijn) are a broken family, beyond any hope of repair. As the action of the play languidly unfolds, it becomes apparent that Agnes, in the last stages of her battle with cancer, is the lucky one. Her sisters are doomed to living, trapped in bourgeois marriages, carrying on petty affairs, and trying but failing to reach each other. The production design, which is both painfully visceral and chillingly clinical, carries us on a hell-ride as these three women are vivisected, both literally and metaphorically.

The experience of watching Cries and Whispers is much closer to appreciating a piece of video art than to enjoying a traditional play. We may be amused or disgusted by the characters onstage, but we rarely sympathize with them, and even more importantly, there is no plot, no central mass of progressing events that drives the action forward. Instead, there is a slow, deliberate unfolding of a forceful artistic vision, a steady pressure on our hearts and brains that gradually makes itself felt.

Among the many video installations, all of them brilliantly executed by Tal Yarden, there is one that encapsulates this quality especially well. An earlier, healthier Agnes approaches a wall, her back to us. She reaches as high and as far as she can, and in extreme slow motion, pulls her arms back in towards herself. Her hands, painted blue, leave long streaks on the wall (are they wings or claws?), which trail off as she comes to rest in a defeated hunch. The video itself is projected on the same wall, so that the streaks are already there, and as the video loops, Agnes eternally retraces the same ambiguous path. Itís an evocative image, one whose meaning lies beyond rational explanation. I left the theater with that same nebulous feeling hovering in my mind. This is not a ďwell-made play,Ē but itís powerful nonetheless.

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By Ingmar Bergman
Directed by Ivo van Hove
Cast: Roeland Fernhout (Joakim/Doctor), Janni Goslinga (Karin), Hugo Koolschijn (Frederik/Priest), Chris Nietvelt (Agnes), Halina Reijn (Maria) and Karina Smulders (Anna)
Sets by Jan Versweyveld
Dramaturgy by Peter van Kraaij
Video: Tal Yarden
Costumes: Wojciech Dziedzic
Sound: Roeland Fernhout.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
A Toneelgroep Amsterdam production/2011 Next Wave Festival
Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene; (718) 636-4100; bam.org.
From 10/25/11 to 10/29/11
Reviewed by Andrew Ash on October 27th
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