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A CurtainUp Review
Scenes From a Marriage
By Elyse Sommer
Flemish avant-garde director Ivo Van Hove once explained his preference for working with other people's plays rather than creating his own as follows: "I'm like a vampire, I take life from the texts I work with." He has found a welcome home for his vampire inclinations towards some of our most renowned playwrights at New York Theatre Workshop. (See links to Curtainup reviews of all their Van Hove productions at the end of this review).
Now the vampire has struck again, this time with a Van Hove-ized version of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage. The Swedish film maker's 1974 exploration of the dynamics of a marital relationship from youth to middle age to maturity was initially done as 6-part TV serial. Bergman adapted it for a 3-hour film and also a stage play.
Working with Emily Mann's English version, Van Hove has used his aggressive reinterprative techniques to turn Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage into Van Hove's Scenes From a Marriage. To do so he has unleashed the text from its traditional casting and linear presentation plan. Instead of having two actors journey through the various stages of their marriage, a different Marianne and Johan are cast for each of three scenes, making it sort of a round song that the audience can jump into at any point.
The three different settings required to make this roundelay concept work have turned not just Bergman's original film on its head, but rejiggered the New York Theatre Workshop's entire interior. Quite a challenging and expensive big deal, especially given that this is an off-off Broadway company not accustomed to spending this much money on a production.
Actually, this isn't the first time that NYTW has reorganized its space to accommodate Van Hove's ideas. In 2004, to support his intention to strip his Hedda Gabler down to its psychological underpinning, the entire orchestra was turned into a giant loft with bare sheetrock walls enveloping the audience. In retrospect that was hardly a big deal, not when compared to what's been done now: Three completely different sets for the audience to move through during the first ninety minutes, with a complete scenic overhaul during the intermission which accounts for its being thirty minutes instead of the usual ten
For fans of the original film, including this writer, this über inventive staging may seem unlikely to beat the emotional resonance of Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson. Though it's been years since I saw that film, some of the scenes and the close-ups of Liv Ullman's face remain vivid in my mind. That said, however, this ingenious Vanhovian take won me over. At any rate I feel safe to assure you that it makes for a gripping, never boring evening even at three and a half hours.
For all the deliberately stylized staging, Van Hove hasn't abandoned the basic plot or its intent: It's still a case history that follows an upper middle class couple (she's a lawyer, he a successful academic) from their twenties through middle age, from a seemingly ideal relationship to one fraught with miscommunication and sexual problems. The relationship's fault lines are evident even during the blissful early years. As in the source text, that fault line cracks wide open and leads to a shattering divorce and its aftermath.
The way Mr. Van Hove, with the help of his long-time designer Jan Versweyveld, has removed the play from its small cast and linear staging, may sound confusing but it's actually not difficult to follow or understand that the three small and very intimate spaces are Van Hove's alternative to recreating the close-up feel of the film for the audience. And most of the time it really works.
Did I say this wasn't confusing? What if your group's first stop is with the middle-aged Marianne (Tina Benko) and Johan (Arliss Howard on the brink of divorce, as mine was. Being familiar with the story courtesy of the film may give you a slight edge, but even without that edge, it's quite clear that, with Joahan about to leave Marianne for a much younger woman, this is a scene from a long-standing marriage. And somehow it won't really matter where you begin.
What is a little confusing, at least at first, is what goes on in the glass-fronted room in back of the stage area on which the scene is being enacted. Not only do Benko and Howard occasionally exit to this room but the as yet unseen other actors also seem to be coming and going — as well as arguing and yelling. It doesn't take long, however, to realize that those other actors are moving in and out on the scene being watched by one of the other audience groups.
The babble of laughter, shouts and murmurs in that more distantly viewed room is probably partly a case of the limits of soundproofing the simultaneously performed scenes. Yet, it's undoubtedly also the director's intentional creation of an aura of disconnect in the miscommunication that is at the heart of Marianne and Johan's inability to stay together — and to serve as a prelude to the merger of all these scenes into into one big cacophonous and gripping Tower of Babel finale.
Of course what's most important in terms of validating Van Hove's audacious tampering with the text's format is whether the actors buy into ith. That all six actors playing the key roles do so is most evident in the final tumultuous all-in-one scene when Marianne 1-2-3 and Johan 1-2-3 meet to sign the final divorce papers. Without their extreme commitment, this final marital roller coaster ride would come off as Van Hovian overkill.
For me two of the most touching and memorable scenes in the film were Marianne's interchanges with two veterans of long but flawed marriages — a client seeking a divorce even though it may be too late to find the love she feels has been sealed off from her in a locked room; and Marianne's recently widowed mother who stuck with her marriage and the mother to whom she's finally able to achieve genuine intimacy. Mia Katigbak is aptly double cast to play both these women.
Committed as all the actors playing Marianne and Johan are, the two who make the most powerful impression are Tina Benko and Arliss Howard. Benko who was so terrific as Birdie Giddens in Van Hove's The Little Foxes, is the most emotionally potent as the oldest Marianne. Howard is superb as the always self-absorbed husband. He gets to sum up the overwhelming emotional confusion of this intense relationship with a choreographed accompaniement to "The Windmills of Your Mind." An apt metaphor for this Ibsen-Strindberg tinged marital dance.
For our London critic's review of a more straightforward production of Scenes From a Marriage go here .
Links to other Van Hove productions at New York Theatre Workshop:
A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennesse Williams)
Alice In Bed (Susan Sontag)
More Stately Mansions (Eugene O'Neill)
Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen)
The Misanthrope (Moliere)
The Little Foxes (Lilian Hellman)