The play, “Ghosts and Zombies”, currently in production by Akvavit Theatre Company at Strawdog Theatre Company, 1806 W. Berenice, Chicago, through October 29th, is an expertly done adaptation by Gustav Tegby of Henrik Ibsen’s iconic 1882 play, “Ghosts”, with some rather ghastly twists. It’s hilarious, brilliantly directed by co-artistic director Breahan Pautsch, beautifully acted, and filled with important messages. The characters in both plays remain essentially the same, and they are:
-Mrs. Helene Alving, widow of Captain (and Chamberlain) Alving, an embittered pragmatic woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Marsha Hayman is superb as the poker-faced, love-denied, defiant mother who takes matters into her own hands.
-Oswald Alving, her son, an artist who can no longer paint; Micah Kronlokken gives a fine understated performance as the confused but passionate artist.
-Pastor Manders, a simpering clergyman wed to convention; sensationally portrayed by Jeremy Trager with a truly rich and smarmy fullness.
-Jacob Engstrand, a sinister carpenter; Joshua K. Harris gives us a threatening scoundrel under a veneer of social conscience.
-Regine Engstrand, a lusty and beauteous housemaid for Mrs. Alving; Almanya Narula embues her role with zest and hidden knowledge.
Additional Characters in “Ghosts and Zombies:
-Orphans, who become zombies; kudos to the ensemble whose priceless depiction of unfortunates-turned-monsters was uproarious.
-Captain/Chamberlain Alving as a zombie with tertiary syphilis; Victor Bayona was the quintessential snarling hauntie.
Summary of plot(s)
In Ibsen’s “Ghosts”, Mrs. Helene Alving is the widow of Captain/Chamberlain of Rosenvold, a (secretly) depraved alcoholic.
In “Ghosts and Zombies”, the Captain had also been a scientist/alchemist, searching for the secret of immortality. He has incurable syphilis, is not really dead, but chained and hidden in the basement.
Alving had a daughter, Regine, by a servant at the house, and a son, Osvald, by his unhappy wife. Regine believes she is the daughter of Engstrand, who is now finishing work on a children’s home to be opened the next day by Helene in memory of Captain Alving. Engstrand was indeed married to Regine’s mother, Johanna. In Zombie’s, Engstrand has a pronounced lech for this daughter, who knows the Captain is concealed/locked in the basement.
Osvald was sent abroad as a child to protect him from his father’s influence. He is now a painter who has come home from Paris in order to be present at the opening of the children’s home. In Zombie’s, he is “infected” with his father’s syphilis, can’t think clearly, drinks to excess, and is infatuated with Regine, who wants to use him to escape to Paris.
Engstrand has plans to take Regine to help him start a “public house” for sailors; both Regine and Mrs. Alving are opposed to this.
Manders, an amazingly self-righteous clergyman, was once the object of Helene’s love and knows of her despair with her young married life; he exhorted her to obey her “duty” and be mindful of her religious beliefs; she is justifiably resentful. Now in charge of the financing of the Orphan home, has also come for the opening; in “Zombie’s”, he gets an earful of the whole sordid history, an eyeful of the monster in the basement, and a bite on the neck. (Zombies have vampire-like qualities and can create new killing machines).
There are quite a few plot devices, lots of staggering undead who get shot and stabbed. Far be it from this reviewer to spoil the end. Suffice to say that on the surface Tegby’s “Ghosts and Zombies” is very similar to the original “Ghost”, but in “Zombies”, long-kept family secrets come out of the proverbial closet- or basement. It’s been written, “Tegby throws an ax and an exorcism into his… twist on the Norwegian classic.” The original play is a social commentary, a warning about the dangers of blind adherence to tradition, a then-thought-scandalous introduction of ideas such as cohabitation without marriage and the use of threats of STD’s to keep people’s behavior in check.
We have in this new take on a classic tale an extremely clever modern inquiry into the meaning of “infection”, “heredity”, and the impact of forced Victorian morality on creativity and love. Tolstoy had a theory about how art “infects” one, stirs one’s soul, awakens one to possibilities. STD’s may not create zombies, but the constant repression of one’s true impulses, the holding back of resultant anger, can certainly cause terrible torment. Maybe it’s a good idea to take the ax to the fetters we place upon ourselves arbitrarily, such as the notion that “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons”. Kids have more than enough to deal with in becoming self-actualized and independent beings without taking on their ancestral guilty secrets.
There are a number of books and films that use zombie parodies (think “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”), but this play’s textual base is particularly sound and the production is filled with spooky stormy sounds and music, truly wonderful makeup and costume design, super violence choreography and great acting. Kudos to the entire production team, especially: Nigel Harsch, sound designer; Rachel Sypniewski, costume designer; R&D Choreography, violence designers; Bethany Weise, hair/makeup/asst. costume design.
For information on Akvavit Theatre, go to www.chicagonordic.org
All photos by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom