World Stages, an International Festival offers three weeks of feasting on international theatrical fare at the Kennedy Center with twenty-two theatrical offerings from nineteen countries, including thirteen full-scale productions, four installations, and additional readings and forums. As a world-theatre lover, what could be more exciting and satisfying than to partake of as much as one could of such riches?
However, the challenge in attending such a festival is the same as an Olympic event such as ice dancing. One is seeing the top of each country’s crop, and the tendency is to begin to “keep score” and to split hairs subjectively in sorting out the styles and “degrees of difficulty.”
I joined the full-scale festival at the opening night of the National Theatre of Iceland’s Harmsaga, a two-person play that is a disturbing, highly charged autopsy of a relationship. Playwright Mikael Torfason based his work on a case history, sensationalized in the news, of a young Icelandic couple’s stormy marriage that spiraled into a murder.
To shine a strong light on his investigation into the emotions that rule human relationships, Torfason, himself a journalist and editor, chose to strip away the other people in the lives of this man-and-wife, including the children who are only experienced as muted voices in the next room. The play moves seamlessly backwards and forwards in time, through cinematic-like cuts and quick emotional changes, to sharply contrast the joy and compatibility the two had shared in the past with the debacle of the present.
The first image of the play, set up as the audience entered the Terrace Theater was a strong and compelling tableau. On one side of the stage a beautiful young woman with a long blonde ponytail stood at the sink, suggesting a Barbie doll posed in her domestic bliss. On the opposite side and sharing the dwelling, a man sits at a table. He too has an almost waxy expression plastered on his face, suggesting a mannequin. The light around them is strong and a somewhat chilly blueish-purple and I, who know little about Iceland as a country or its people, decide it is suitably Icelandic.
As the action begins, first in wordless stage business of the two and then in phrases played and replayed, the play’s quixotic structure causes some problems, and I found myself initially teetering between engagement and estrangement.
The husband launches into a kind of hyperventilated breathing followed by exploding anger that starts the play out at such a pitch that I wondered, where can it go from here? Is the man a psychopath, and if so, how can he generate our sympathy? The “degree of difficulty” issue seemed at times forced, and I was reminded of schools of acting that young actors seem to gravitate to where they act and reenact scenes of explosive emotionalism as if proving their actor chops. (The recent training written up in the bios of both these young actors only fueled this initial interpretation.) As the British would say, it all gets a bit “wanky.” A few people in the audience left.
Another dangerous teetering is how the play uses banal language, which reminds me of nothing so much as the endless language of relational conflicts played out in daytime soap operas. Torfason uses repetition of accusations in fights played in husband-and-wife “duets.” Would the characters ever recover and play new music, and would the play transcend its seeming banality?
There came a time when I did indeed make a shift in my experience. One significant point happened when the two actors, Snorri Engilbertsson (as Ragnar) and Elma Stefanía Ágústsdóttir (as his wife Sigrún) began dancing. In a scene from their past, they were showing off to friends, sharing a little routine they had been practicing. The familiar music started, and they performed the famous Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s dance from the film Dirty Dancing. On one level, these two actors cut loose physically and both, but particularly Engilbertsson, demonstrated they had the moves. He even uncannily had the Swayze eyes and wide, strong cheekbones. The performers played both delight in dancing and the irony in lampooning the fabrication of this iconic cinematic romance. When Engilbertsson flipped up his collar and called out to his audience, “Come on!” he got us all going and signaled to this dance judge at least they were going to sail confidently into a strong finish.
Understandably, you see, we learned in the talk-back afterwards, there had been another “degree of difficulty” challenge for these two actors. They were performing for the first time – as a special gift “in gratitude” to American and Kennedy Center audiences – in English. I marveled at their courage and their aptitude, even though I could acknowledge there were still moments, slight awkwardness in cadences, the occasional wrong letter sound (“w” for “v”) which made me think they were sometimes caught doing and not living inside their roles. How I would love to see this visceral piece again in the intimate space and in the native language in which the play originated.
By the middle of this intermission-less work, I could fully appreciate the emotional transitions these performers made and the layers of life and meaning the repetitions gave the work. Director Una Thorleifsdóttir proved to me she had a clear handle on this material and an understanding of its accumulative impact. I recognized the strange way we all get caught up in repeating accusations and expecting others to fulfill our needs and make us happy.
For this stage couple, they never could step back and keep themselves from “crossing the line” into destroying each other, but we can see it can be a dangerous dance for anyone. In this dramatic autopsy, it became clear over time that this couple developed a “no exit” existence, and their screams and vicious assaults hurled them toward an inexorable end. While Ágústsdóttir delivered the more nuanced performance, I came to admire both actors’ visceral commitment and sustained intensity, which was in the ballpark if not as flawlessly mind-blowing as the South African Mies Julie performed in D.C. last year.
The set and lights get high marks for creating the world and mood. Set designer Eva Signý Berger used taped out room divisions and minimal pre-fab furniture to create the Ikea “flimsy domestic foundation” of the young couple. (When Engilbertsson at one point screams that he is glad in their divorce he never has to go to another Ikea store again, he gets the most appreciative laugh of the evening.) The actors carefully avoided looking through the imaginary walls at each other and walked in and out of the marked doorways. Sometimes the floor tape would light up and create nightclub dance floors or other fantasy spaces. The set helped keep the space and time fluid but also suggested a TV studio without walls for soap opera scenes to be shot. Magnús Arnar Sigurdarson created magic with his strong lighting changes that dramatized the actors’ moods and keyed the audience into the quick shifts.
I was also very taken with the music by John Grant and the exquisite soundscape by Kristinn Gauti Einarsson that amplified both the light moments and the tragedy.
Another gift to the Kennedy Center’s festival was the presence of Tina Gunnlaugsdóttir, Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Iceland. She contributed greatly to the discussion following the performance, and made me want to sample more of this theatre’s mission and fare. I was reminded that Harmsaga and this company were great boons for cultural diplomacy, engaging us as it did not only in its specific expression but its universality of themes, and how, at heart, we are all beautifully and tragically so alike in our relationships.
This production ran for 2 performances: March 15 and 16, 2014.
Harmsaga by Mikael Torfason . Directed by Una Thorleifsdóttir . Produced by The National Theatre of Iceland . Presented at The Kennedy Center as part of the World Stages Festival at the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
The World Stages International Festival continues at The Kennedy Center through March 30, 2014. Details and tickets.