No, this is not Patrick Swayze’s Ghost. And no, there are no pottery wheels in this play. Rather, this version of Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts has been translated and directed by associate professor of the Department of Theatre Arts at Stony Brook, Michael X. Zelenak.
The play, presented by the theatre arts department, is set within the walls of one room: one that frequently morphs back and forth between being a prison and a sanctuary. The five characters are ordinary people, but with secrets and desires to hide. It focuses on struggles between concealing a dark past and revealing the truth: between personal happiness and duty and family values.
Student actors, Duygu Baydur and Diogo Martins, were fitting in their roles as they surely could relate to the whims, curiosities and doubts of their respective characters. However, their limited theatre experience was present in that they could not seem to bring more life to the relatively one-note characters they played. Baydur’s Regina was charming and adorable, but the dramatic mood shift towards the end did not feel realistic. Ibsen’s emotionally comatose Oswald, played by Martins, had stares that were almost too blank even for this young character. However, the character’s anger and eventual mental deterioration was an outlet for Martins’ true talent.
But the stellar performances of veteran actors and university faculty members, Douglas MacKaye Harrington, Steve Marsh and Deborah Mayo, were able to push the characters of Ibsen’s play to their maximum capacity. Harrington’s Pastor Manders was funny and frustrating. Zelenak mentioned that he was surprised the audience was seemingly afraid to laugh at Manders, who was quick to shift moods between moral compass and pillar of hypocrisy. Marsh’s Jacob Engstrand was another good outlet for some humor on stage, with a bottle of booze in his pocket and silly dreams in his head. His was the only character not keeping his skeletons locked away in the closet.
Fantastic as the cast was, Mayo’s Mrs. Alving, the newly outspoken widow with a haunting past of abuse, was easily the highlight of the show. Biochemistry and theatre arts double major at SBU, Samuel Katz, who can always be caught at the Staller Theatre, agreed. “She was the center of gravity of the whole thing.” He then added, “She managed to give so much life and vitality to that role.” Her time on stage was spent trying to reconcile with her past, as she says she is “haunted and terrified of the dead.”
Every word’s inflection and her movements, down to her fingertips, sent chills through the theatre. Her final scene produced goose bumps along every inch of skin. She managed to take what could have been a mildly boring character and made her into a sympathetically tortured woman far from frail and helpless. Mrs. Alving was changed from a “woman to be pitied,” as Pastor Manders called her, to a character with strength and a desire to confront the mistakes of her past.
Zelenak, who has studied, translated and directed Ibsen plays for most of his career, credits the Norwegian playwright for saving drama and bringing it “back into the realm of literary ideas…morality and ethics too.”
Like in Ghosts, he says it is about “questioning and debating the decisions you make in your life” and how “the accumulation of your decisions, [that] you sometimes don’t even realize you’re making, come back with a vengeance.”
As far as the students of Stony Brook University are concerned, Zelenak believes they will be able to identify the most with the conflicted, young artist, Oswald. However, that is not to say that they will not just as easily enjoy the painfully ironic lectures of the Pastor, the drunken debauchery of Engstrand, the bubbly curiosity of Regina and the emotional range and torment of Mrs. Alving, as the characters search, willingly or not, for what Mrs. Alving calls the “plain, unvarnished truth.”
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