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|A CurtainUp Review
By Jenny Sandman
If something is rotten in the state of Denmark, it's not Kaj Munk's Ordet, beautifully staged by Handcart Ensemble. Originally written in 1925 and staged in 1932, this New York premiere has been adapted from Carl Dreyer's film which won the 1956 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.
Despite the handsome staging and able acting, however, this production lacks spark. Part of that lies squarely with the subject matter. A solid Danish kitchen-sink drama, Ordet is centered around the religious conflict of two families, exploring religious conservatism vs. fundamentalism.
Borgen, the patriarch of the estate Borgensgaard, is a cantankerous old man. He fights everyone, including his son Mikkel, who doesn't agree with his father's religious beliefs. Borgen is also butting heads with his neighbor Reuben over the marriage of his son Ander and Reuben's daughter Esther. Reuben won't even consider the marriage. He considers Ander's religion too liberal.
Though Borgen too is opposed to the marriage, he chafes at Reuben's strictures and consequently determines to force the marriage through. A terrible fight between the two fathers errupts aand is interrupted by Borgen being summoned home because his daughter-in-law, Inger, has fallen gravely ill during childbirth. Johannes, Borgen's mentally impaired son (and one-time favorite) is convinced he's Jesus and so persuades Inger's children that he can raise her from the dead. This leads to a fierce religious debate within the Borgen household.
This conflict that may seem revelant but somehow rings empty. While some fundamentalist religious may still debate such things, they are not generally considered impediments to marriage. Yet these are the points around which Borgen and Reuben's conflict centers -- that, and whether miracles can still occur. There's not enough of an audience to get excited about all this talk about how to divine God's will, how to interpret the blessings (or lack thereof) of God, and how to survive "trials of faith."
The play is staged simply and sparsely and appropriately highlights the family drama. The plain Danish homes are represented with a backlit white curtain behind a low brown wall with three offset, irregular windows. A plain dining table with side benches, tea service and scythe are the only furnishings. This is punctuated with haunting, somber music.
With the strong performances and direction, Handcart Ensemble almost overcomes the somewhat staid subject matter. Jennifer Gawlik as Inger is a little stiff, but Bob Armstrong as Borgen has more than enough vitality to go around, as does Bill Tatum as Reuben. Both are aptly fiery, and their confrontation provides most of the production's dramatic impact. Tom Martin as Johannes does a nice job of not being a complete zealot (or loony). Although the large cast consists mainly of peripheral characters, they work and move well together, aided by Reynolds' sharp direction.
Ordet certainly provides philosophical food for thought. While the religious debate often seems heavy-handed, it's an interesting look into early twentieth-century life in rural Denmark. It's also a chance to see a solid production of a rarely-performed play.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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