December 25, 1997–January 1, 1998

theater

 

Suddenly we’re in August Strindberg’s version of A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, if you can imagine such a thing.

 

A Strindberg Christmas

Yes, that Strindberg—the U.S. premiere of a little-known play by the Swedish master.

by Cary M. Mazer

 

The Black Glove

Vox Theatre Company, Montgomery County Cultural Center, 208 DeKalb St., Norristown, through Jan. 11, (610) 279-4248.

When strange things start happening in the later plays of the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg it can mean one of two things.

In some plays, when the central character notices things in the everyday world that start to take on unearthly significance (the masts of a half-sunken ship begin to resemble the three crosses on Calvary; someone takes sick just when one wishes the person dead), it usually indicates that the character is starting to experience a life-changing paranoid-schizophrenic episode, not unlike the one Strindberg himself experienced in his so-called “inferno” crisis in the 1890s.

In other plays, when really crazy things start to happen (a castle, rooted in manure, starts growing higher and higher until it sprouts a chrysanthemum bud out of its dome; a mummified old woman who lives under the stairs starts talking like a parrot), it means that we’re in a different dramatic universe altogether, and that what we’re seeing on stage is more like a dream than a picture of earthly reality.

But something else is happening in The Black Glove, a late “chamber play” that was barely produced in Strindberg’s day. It has rarely been revived in Sweden since, and by all accounts has never been produced in the United States before the Vox Theatre’s current production.

We appear to be in a normal world—a six-story apartment building “where human souls are stacked” one on top of another. An octogenarian taxidermist (Guil Fisher) who lives in the attic apartment discovers a lady’s black glove in the lobby. The kindly janitor (Jan Austell) tries to find the short circuit that keeps blacking out the building’s electricity. An elegant and arrogant young mother (Suzanne Levinson) accuses one of her browbeaten servants (Rebecca Braglio) of stealing her missing emerald ring. It all sounds pretty normal. The residents may try to invest the building’s peculiar features (a stained-glass heart in the fanlight over the front door that casts a glowing image on the lobby’s marble floor) with deep significance. But no one’s paranoid; and no castles burst into flower.

But very soon we discover that we’re not in a normal world after all. The electricity keeps going on and off, the glove keeps disappearing and reappearing in new places, because there are mystical forces at work. It is, after all, Christmas Eve. Into the lobby of the apartment building walk a wizened Gnome (Richard Quinn) in an elf’s cap, and the Angel of Christmas (Theresa Donahue), with platinum tresses and a silver crown. And suddenly we’re in August Strindberg’s version of A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, if you can imagine such a thing.

Charged by the Angel, the Gnome benignly puts the Old Man and the young mother through Scrooge-like life-changing redemptive experiences. The Gnome does what Strindberg the dramatist does best: he makes his characters suffer. The mother faces the sudden disappearance of her infant. And the Old Man, in an extended dialogue with the Gnome, is forced to see that his life’s philosophical work (his attempt to find the single universal unifying principle) is invalid, and that his lifelong effort, for which he has sacrificed his family and his contact with his fellow creatures, has been wasted.

And so we in the audience do what we usually do when we see a Strindberg play: we watch people suffer.

Lauren Pierson-Swanson’s production is heavy on tone and long on significant pauses, but she does capture the long ordeal of the play’s suffering characters. She emphasizes the play’s visual and verbal poetry (it’s written in verse), despite the fact that the translation (uncredited in the program) is so congealed and staccato, and the fact that the most poetic character of all, the Gnome, speaks it so poorly. And if the play’s central episode—the Old Man’s debate with the Gnome—fails to reach its lyrical and philosophical heights, it may be because Fisher, in characterizing the Old Man’s geriatric infirmity so adeptly, effectively masks his character’s emotional suffering.

Still, the peculiar beauty of the play, with its peculiarly Strindbergian version of Christmas spirit, comes through. Even so, I kept hoping for at least a glimmer of contemporary funkiness, a touch of whimsy, a single burst of theatrical outrageousness. Anyone who remembers Elizabeth Robey’s Good Fairy in Vox’s production of Lloyd’s Prayer a few seasons back will have trouble keeping a straight face when the Angel of Christmas comes on stage, for all her platinum tresses.