I do not know what this sixty-minute piece is about, but I’m pretty sure I know what it’s not about. It’s not about its ostensible subject, Sweden’s shameful collaboration with the Nazis in World War II. I say this because when Swedish writer/director/lead actor Goran Gillinger brings it up – which he does less often in this oddly-connected series of sketches than he brings up, for example, dinner with the Gillinger family – he usually dips it in an acid bath of irony, as he dips virtually every other subject and viewpoint in the play. Whose side are you on, Swede?
The factual background is this: during the second War, Sweden gave Nazi Germany camps in which to house Norwegian prisoners and free access to the Swedish railway system. It is unclear whether the Swedish government did this because in an effort to forestall occupation (“The Nazi invasion of Norway took two months,” Gillinger says. “Denmark was done in a day. In Sweden, it took a telephone call.”) or because anti-Semitism, rampant in Sweden as it was throughout Europe, made the Nazi cause popular in Sweden. Sweden’s complicity in the Nazi terror raises difficult and interesting questions about neutrality and pacifism. We never see them in A Swedish Tiger, though.
That’s because Gillinger is too busy showing off his wit and considerable theatrical gifts riffing on the familiar and the trivial. Painted up to look like a corpse out of a local mortician’s basement (the makeup is uncredited), he is “the Ghost” – by implication, the ghost of history. He is a remarkably lively shade. He begins with a bit of metafiction, explaining that they have decided to do the show in English because the language is “expressive” and “gets to the point.” Would be that it was so!
Gillinger’s Ghost is accompanied by Daniel C. Edwards, who is dressed in a costume which makes him look like the cartoon character Hobbes. This character is actually a giant pun; the Swedish expression “A Swedish Tiger” (En Svensk Tiger) also means “A Swede keeps silent,” and the Swedish government went to great pains to obfuscate its collaboration with the Nazis, amending its Constitution to permit it to jail critics of Swedish complicity.
Edwards’ Tiger lives by this tradition, barely speaking as he eagerly – but not always competently – acts out the Ghost’s stories in pantomime. When the Ghost talks directly to us, not looking at him, though, he shows us boredom, incredulity, and disgust.
The Ghost has a lot of stories, and he’s happy to act them out himself as well, often sacrificing his body in the process. Shortly after praising the English language’s directness, he acts out what appears to be a grade-B American shoot-and-sob movie opera, assuming all roles, and we realize that he was being ironic about his love for the language’s directness, as well as the heroic values which the movie clumsily embraces. Notwithstanding all the irony, he slams himself about the stage with great vigor and enthusiasm, leaving what appears to be a permanent ghost stain on the Classika Theatre’s stage-right wall. And later, un-Ghostlike, he draws blood by grinding finely-chopped onions into his face (I’m not making this up). These onions, of course, help him shed ironic tears when he’s describing the various groups helped by compassionate Swedish television (“The mentally ill…the terminally ill…the retarded…the homeless…the bullied.”) He also tells several jokes about his ancient grandfather (the time his grandfather mistook him for his brother…the time his grandfather served coffee for four when only the two of them were in the apartment). In the governing spirit of irony, these jokes are deliberately unfunny.
Late in the play, Gillinger takes advantage of the English language’s directness to put the subject of the play on the table. Partially obscured from the audience, he cross-examines the Tiger about Sweden’s collaboration with the most venomous regime in human history. The Tiger first tries to laugh off the questions, then gives evasive answers, and finally whines “what would you have done?” The passage takes about five minutes. After that, the Ghost has a terrible story about his grandfather – one which makes him weep (for real) while the Tiger scampers and giggles.
Look, Gillinger is a good writer, witty and edgy, and an excellent performer. There’s nothing wrong with A Swedish Tiger except that it isn’t about anything, and it could have been about a great deal. In Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet, there’s a little bit of that direct English language Gillinger talks about. Polonius, thinking that he has uncovered the reason for Hamlet’s peculiar behavior, prefaces his findings with a huge gaseous oration. “More matter, with less art,” Queen Gertrude advises him. Gillinger, who has a great deal more to offer us than poor Polonius did, should take the Queen’s advice to heart.
A Swedish Tiger
Written by Goran Gillinger and Jens Östberg
Directed by Goran Gillinger
Produced by Synetic Theater Blackout Series
Reviewed by Tim Treanor