Kennedy Center’s “Bergman 100 Celebration” continues with (through Sunday only!) a Toneelgroep Amsterdam production: stage versions of two screenplays by the great man whose centenary is being appropriately marked.
If you are, as I am, a devotee of the iconic Swedish filmmaker and stage director Ingmar Bergman, you won’t want to miss this evening. It is bliss.
If you aren’t familiar with Bergman’s amazing (and strikingly varied) oeuvre, here is a wonderful opportunity to take a deep dive into the distinct, piercingly powerful sensibility which defined, for many of us, international cinema in the 20th century.
His work is like that of Samuel Beckett in that, along with the accumulated effect of each piece, one is constantly moved by the profound observations, small and large, about life that individual lines or encounters yield.
Perhaps Bergman in 2018 isn’t the household name (in artistic circles, anyway) that he was in the middle of the last century. What a delight, then, that his work persists not only through his film catalog, but also as many of his screenplays have morphed onto the stage.
Acclaimed Belgian Director Ivo van Hove (can one refer to him as an enfant terrible if he has won a Tony award?) gives DC audiences the opportunity to savor a double-header of Bergman. And, if you find the trend toward short evenings tiresome, check out this show. You definitely get your money’s worth: these days, either part of this bill could stand alone as an evening, and together provides access to more insight into the human condition than one can generally expect from an evening at the theatre or the cinema.
Persona (filmed in 1966) was one of Bergman’s most celebrated films; After the Rehearsal (1984) is not as widely known. In some ways, the latter (which leads off the evening) is the more successful stage transfer.
It’s also a strange piece to watch in this post-Weinstein environment, dealing (with immense honesty and perception) as it does with how relationships in creative environments can straddle the personal and the professional in complicated ways. The director of the play-within-a-play, acted compellingly by Gijs Scholten van Aschat, walks to the brink of and, in fact, crosses lines concerning appropriate involvement with women over whose careers he has power.
The piece onstage (I never saw the movie) grippingly portrays the artistic process, and provides many insights into it. The director has called a rehearsal with a young actress; he had worked with her parents. Through flashback, we see his interaction with her (now dead) mother.
The director tells the young actress that he cast her after seeing an unsuccessful performance: she could only have been that bad if she has talent. That’s the sort of wickedly funny and keen observation with which the work of Bergman, on display here, is replete.
The piece describes how the quest to perfect art on-stage can be seen as an attempt to impose order on dysfunctional life. The observations about artists are profound; they apply as well to all of us who slog through life at the same time as we acknowledge, if through denial, our gradual deterioration.
The entire cast is wonderful. However, Marieke Heebink, as the mother in After the Rehearsal, is giving one of those performances which, for those who see it, will be remembered all of our theatre-going lives. Scrupulously honest in its delineation of drunkenness, neediness, and resilience, it’s a performance you shouldn’t miss.
In Persona, she is the actress who, after playing Electra, stops speaking. Gaite Jansen, who played her daughter in the first piece, now plays her nurse/companion.
That’s funny since, in the film, it was the older Bergman actor Bibi Andersson who played the nurse, and the newer actor (it was Liv Ullmann’s first collaboration with Bergman, with whom she worked frequently and with whom she became romantically involved) who played the actress.
It was a particular personal delight to realize that I had seen Ullmann and Anderson both on this Eisenhower stage — Ullmann when she directed Bergman’s Private Confessions last year and took a bow with the cast; Andersson during the 1973 pre-Broadway tour of Erich Maria Remarque’s Full Circle.
In Persona, Jansen shines as the Nurse, matching the intensity of Heebink, whose nearly wordless performance is equally as impressive as her earlier turn in After the Rehearsal.
Persona onstage packs a powerful punch, though it excludes two of the salient aspects of the film: the morphing together of the faces of the two women (obviously something that is easier to achieve on film, notwithstanding that video, a van Hove signature, had played a prominent role in After the Rehearsal); and the sequence involving a shard of glass that the nurse intentionally leaves on the ground, expecting that the actress will step on it.
After the Rehearsal / Persona
closes Sunday, April 22, 2018
Details and tickets
But van Howe is not interested in creating shot-by-shot stage replications of the Bergman films, but rather in re-inventing them as stage pieces, and in that he has succeeded.
The motifs that echo through both pieces involve masks — artistic versus personal — and the honesty (or lack thereof) in personal relationships; how the artistic impulse feeds on life while, at the same time, life informs art; the tension between parental love and the selfishness that pulls against it — this evening, these plays, are packed full of resonance.
I remember Persona, in its filmic and full-length iteration, as having a tension between the two characters whose arc is sharper, more sustained, and less easily resolved. (The initial state of Heebink’s actress, following her breakdown, is, here, much more dire — Ullmann in the film I remember as presenting almost normal but for her refusal to speak.)
This may make Persona less satisfying as a stand-alone play, at least to someone who knows the movie, but this stage version cannily underscores the themes that are shared by the two halves of the evening.
Jan Versweyveld is Scenogrpaher and Lighting Designer. Persona involves an impressive rain storm (we see the massive fans employed to create it) and a sequence during which a lighting shift remarkably transforms the space thoroughly and instantly.
The Kennedy Center continues to bring an impressive array of wonderful international theatre to town. If the runs are frustratingly short, the chance to engage the artists — particularly the unique sensibility of the justly renowned Ingmar Bergman, realized in such an involving way by Ivo van Hove and company — should not be missed.
And the current bill offers a “two for the price of one” opportunity…as well as a stunning performance by Marieke Heebink that is, by itself, worth the price of admission.
After the Rehearsal / Persona by Ingmar Bergman. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Featuring Marieke Heebink, Gaite Jansen, Gijs Scholten van Aschat, and Frieda Pittoors. Dramaturgy: Peter van Kraaji. Scenographer/Lighting Designer: Jan Versweyveld. Sound Design: Roeland Fernhout. Costume Design: An D’Huys. Production by Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of its “Bergman 100 Celebration.” Reviewed by Christopher Henley.
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