With our dear leader calling for Scandinavian immigrants, Seattle Repertory Theatre is au currant. The hilarious world premiere production of, “Ibsen in Chicago” by David Grimm is running through March 4 in the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Rep. Directed by the Rep’s Artistic Director, Braden Abraham, the cast is glorious, as is the direction and comedic timing.
No one would dare mention Henrik Ibsen and hilarity in the same sentence, unless it was an oxymoron. That all changed with Grimm’s comedy. I haven’t laughed so much since Jinx Monsoon delivered her rendition of the character of Nora from another Ibsen play, “The Doll’s House” on the Rep stage a few years ago.
Commissioned by the Seattle Rep, playwright Grimm relocates Ibsen’s classic, “Ghosts,” to Chicago. Imagine: The year is 1882, and thousands of Scandinavian immigrants have blown into the Windy City. Among them, Henning, an idealistic Danish bricklayer (a sincere and utterly appealing Christopher McLinden) who rhapsodizes about the outlaw Jesse James, and has somehow obtained the rights to produce Ibsen’s drama, “Ghosts: at Chicago’s Aurora Turner Hall. A shithole of a theater, described not be our dear leader, but by Henning’s preening, Danish actress/girlfriend, Helga, who will reluctantly star as Mrs. Alving (She would rather do something by her fellow Dane, Hans Christian Andersen). Sorry, Helga darling, Henning insists on Ibsen. But he first must find actors for the other roles, so he places an advertisement for open auditions.
When a lovely young woman, Elsa (a sassy (Hannah Ruwe), shows up, Helga is threatened — in other words, fit to be tied. The two women instantly dislike each other, and the catfights begin, with snide remarks flying between dueling divas.
Determined to put on the play, Henning recruits a couple of ragtag amateurs who happen by. Two Norwegian immigrants — a good-natured cobber named Per (the honest and hopeful R. Hamilton Wright) who auditions with Patrick Henry’s famous Liberty speech, and Pekka (the dynamic Allen Fitzpatrick), an argumentative and cynical opportunist always looking to make a quick buck.
Henning also promised his landlady that her meek sister Solveig (an endearing Annette Toutonghi) could be part of the production. She arrives at rehearsals with a bloody bandage wrapped from head to chin — it seems she has a tendency to pull out her teeth with a pair of plyers.
So far, so fine. Henning is eager to tackle the complexity of Ibsen’s drama in his new nation. In fact, it will be the American premiere of Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” And not random “wooo-oooo” spirits, but the ghosts of the past lurking in our minds like a Chia pet gone wild.
Widely regarded by many as the most important playwright since Shakespeare, Ibsen is often referred to as "the father of realism" and is one of the founders of modernism in theatre. Once the subject of public controversy, several of his later dramas were considered too scandalous to produce. Only the avant-garde theater critics of the 19th century were supportive. Now those same dramas are classics of the theatre repertoire.
Unless the direction is superb and the actors are terrific, sitting through an Ibsen play can be a daunting experience. He wasn’t a funny man, nor was he a happy man. He was a depressed man with ghosts of his own. In fact, no one is sure he ever laughed. All through his life, he suffered under conservative, Norwegian provincialism. He railed against a society that crushes the "joy of life," until only bitterness and frustration remain.
That’s why “Ibsen in Chicago” is such delicious fare.
As Helga, Kirsten Potter is a cheeky handful with her grandiose gestures, over-the-top vocal exercises, and drama-queen, stage sashays. She commands the stage with her tour de force Danish Diva antics, but she didn’t do it alone. The other cast members hold their own with some of the most delightful performances seen in Seattle this season.
Fitzpatrick is a theatrical force to be reckoned with, and Wright does just that with the innocent, everyman persona he’s perfected over the years. When Potter, as Helga, dishes it out, feisty Ruwe as Elsa, gives it right back. And Toutonghi manages to make us laugh and empathize with her character at the same time. It’s not so much what she says, but what she doesn’t.
Costume designer G.W. Mercier creates Victorian couture with the costumes for Helga, whose hats are divine, especially the concoction with the royal purple plums. This critic had to be restrained from jumping onstage and plucking it off her head. As for Mercier’s set design, it has two levels. The stage level is simple, with a huge window from floor to rafters as a backdrop, particularly effective during simulated rainstorms. That’s when you feel as if you’re truly in Ibsen territory. The upper level adds dimension, but if you don’t want to strain your neck, opt for seats at least seven rows from the stage.
While the actors have us in stitches, snippets of Ibsen’s ideals slip through the hilarity. It’s a testimony to the brilliance of Grimm’s script.
Masterfully directed by Abraham, “Ibsen in Chicago” is fantastic fun. How would Ibsen react? We can only hope that he’s finally laughing — in his coffin.
Note: “Ghosts” actually premiered in Chicago in May 1882, when a Danish touring company produced it at the Aurora Turner Hall. Ibsen disliked the English translator's use of the word "Ghosts" as the play's title; he preferred the Norwegian “Gengangere,” more accurately translated as "The Revenants,” which literally means "The Ones Who Return."
"Ibsen in Chicago" runs in the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Rep through March 4; tickets available at the box office at 206-443-2222, or online at www.seattlerep.org.