Eugene’s Ghosts animated by acting not technology

Review: Eugene’s Ghosts at Space 360 Hudson, NY  

THE WORDS ARE O’NEILL’S, though many of them have been excised for this production. Maybe we should be grateful to be spared the playwright’s overlong litany of wounds and salves, poured out in a basically plotless, autobiographical “American masterpiece.” And maybe not.

Harold Bloom, who joins others in calling Long Day’s Journey into Night “an American masterpiece,” also named it “The Ghost Sonata.” (Hence, Eugene’s Ghosts?) I think these characters would be lucky to be ghosts, but it is their misfortune to be intensely, painfully alive.

 

Instead of “Sonata,” we might call the play “Theme and Variations on Blame.” This Actors’ Ensemble offering is more forgiving than O’Neill’s original, but it is still a journey through minor keys, with dynamics from raging forte to teasing pianissimo, with Schoenberg clusters interrupted by sentimental harmonies, the stuff of love and family bonding. A mother blames one son for being born, another for killing his infant brother. She blames her husband for her loneliness and for not giving her a home, her father for spoiling her, and her doctors for turning her into a morphine addict.

Even so, we love and pity her. Each family member creates his own set of blame variations, and they absorb us because there we find ourselves and parts of our own families.

At the center is Mary, the family’s (and O’Neill’s) drug-addicted mother. It is a role begging to be played by the wonderful Fern Sloan. She glides into view nursing her gnarled hands, smiling, covering, suffering, denying. Fern/Mary’s beauty lingers, and it is easy to picture the spirited young Ma later described by her husband. Sloan unearths her ingénue voice to relive Mary’s schoolgirl Catholicism and her habitual request for mercy. It grows in depth and amplitude toward Act One’s stirring peak, as the actress allows blame to roar out of its cage to devour all doctors. It is the most compelling variation of the evening. In between, she explores teasing blame, understated, sarcastic blame, loving blame, and bitter, bitter blame.

In this production, it is easy to become fascinated with voices, though no audience will catch these actors listening to their own. Ted Pugh, in his role as a successful actor, the miserly father of the clan, employs his rich baritone and impeccable diction to drive his intentions deep into those around him. O’Neill’s actor-father must have done exactly that.

If you haven’t yet seen Ted Pugh in performance, it is past time. If nothing else, ask him to start you off with his brilliant gibberish monologue. (Around here we are the home base of an amazing number of excellent actors, starting with Pugh, Sloan, and David Anderson of Walking the dog Theater.)

In the Act Two scene between Pugh and Seamus Maynard (who plays his youngest, seriously ill son), the play’s pace became strangely jerky, as if the scene had been recently altered or left slightly under-rehearsed.

In the original play, the alcoholism of the father and his two sons is important. The irony of three alcoholics trying to regulate Mother’s drug habit is funny-tragic and central to their individual and collective fates. Mildly inebriated behaviors seemed to slip in and out of scenes without ever bringing the point to the fore.

The nasal voice of Dale March as Jamie, the elder son, would not have been tolerated by the play’s goading father. The elder actor surely would have insisted that his actor son slow down and learn to love his vowels. But, beyond that, and beyond his intensity and stage-worthy good looks, March rises to stunning truthfulness, confessing to an unendurable, protective, hate-jealousy-love for his younger brother.

Seamus Maynard’s beauty goes a long way toward defining something about the younger brother; though if O’Neill meant this character to stand for the playwright himself, more grit might be required. And again, there is the voice. Maynard’s seemed under-produced, even for a consumptive character. There is a beautiful speech in which the son attempts to communicate his transcendent experiences to his uncomprehending father. It was especially disappointing to see this actor (seeming to obey a director’s order) deliberately turn and deliver it to the camera.

Oh yes, I should have told you about the camera. It sat in the aisle, manned by director Ragnar Freidank, who will record the performances in preparation for a film.

Freidank is an actor of many gifts, but I have doubts about this concept for O’Neill’s Journey. It was odd. Usually, I have a taste for “odd,” and I like the not-at-all-radical practice of mixing projections with dialogue. But for this particular play, it seemed-well, odd. The images on the wall (which were enlarged versions of the person speaking or images of other members of the family) were occasionally partial or jerky and often distracting. Where shall I look? When the live actors touch the images on the wall, is meaning really added? Did the device grab the scene away from the actor?

The director, the stage designer, etc. are all accessories, but the actor is the theatre.

Experimentation can be exciting, but Long Day’s Journey into Night is a realistic drama, set out in unabashedly American vernacular. It would seem to beg for an old-fashioned set, with realistic movement upon it. (I sensed a certain actor discomfort with the sofa, sofa, chair equilateral triangle.)

Maybe the director’s vision is aimed at the film. Do see these live actors at Space 360 in Hudson. They are worth it. Then return to see what emerges in the film.

Tickets may be requested via email at moc.l1568567281iamq@1568567281elbme1568567281snesr1568567281otca1568567281 or by telephone at 518-392-5497. 

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