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Tucson Weekly August Madness

Despite A Watered-Down Script, Quintessential Theatre's 'The Father' Offers A Rare Glimpse Of Strindberg's Insane Genius.

By Dave Irwin

APRIL 5, 1999:  AUGUST STRINDBERG, one of the pillars of modern drama, was pretty much wacko throughout his career. Not that certifiable insanity is necessarily a drawback for an artist, but Strindberg also had a remorseless view of women as evil, unlike his contemporary Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen's pro-feminist views in plays such as A Doll's House, Ghosts and Hedda Gabler make those works, by modern values, more palatable. Strindberg on the other hand, while still praised for his groundbreaking realism, is rarely performed. Despite a worldwide revival in 1949 around the centennial of his birth, of his 58 plays only Miss Julie, and to a much lesser degree The Father, are likely to make it to the boards.

Quintessential Productions' current version of The Father seeks to rehabilitate the 19th-century curmudgeon's image by watering down his misogynism. This kinder, gentler Strindberg is easier to watch, but ultimately inaccurate. The production is redeemed, however, by director Brian Kearney's over-the-top performance in the title role.

This original adaptation by QP Artistic Director Laura Ann Herman, who also plays wife Laura, was based on Swedish and French texts (Strindberg did his own French translations). Herman learned to translate Swedish while working on a long-delayed version of Miss Julie (three years in the making and originally scheduled for this past January, it's now slated for October of next season).

"We were looking to do a standing adaptation, but a lot of them are very archaic," Herman explained. "The Father hasn't been done in recent translation the way that Miss Julie has. So what we were looking at was from the turn of the century, which played very well then, but doesn't now because of the language."

Kearney, who knew little about Strindberg going into the production, was fascinated by what he found in his research.

"Essentially, the man was insane," Kearney says. "He was into alchemy, bizarre scientific experiments (Strindberg's attempts to prove that sulfur was not a true element constituted a particularly odious period for his neighbors). He despised Ibsen. Ibsen's strong female characters were victorious because they were in the right. Strindberg had Oedipal issues with his mother and all of his wives (he married three times to increasingly younger women). His intention was for Laura to be very simple, instinctual, animal-like and evil. We tried to tone that down to make her more of a real person, and have her motives stem from a realistic, more believable standpoint."

Alas, in leavening Laura, female evil incarnate who drives her husband insane with tortuous doubts about the paternity of their daughter, Bertha (played winsomely by Catalina Foothills freshman Amelia Hileman), the central theme is clouded rather than clarified.

Old August wanted to make the point that a woman by her very nature could drive an otherwise good man (like, say, himself) utterly insane. Here, with Herman playing the foil as a doe-eyed innocent, the husband essentially drives himself over the brink. While this is truer to the facts of Strindberg's circumstances--he wrote the play as a catharsis for his own utterly unsubstantiated suspicions--it overly contemporizes the drama and message. Normally played as a strong, ruthless bitch, Laura here is confused, timidly helpful and no cause for her husband's descent into madness.

But it is Kearney's crescendo as The Captain, a strong leader of men who is helplessly surrounded by a domestic household of women, that grabs attention. Somewhat awkward initially in an ill-fitting military coat and boots, Kearney works with a controlled fury to the end of the second act. By the middle of the third act, as he is eased into a strait-jacket by his trusted childhood governess (competently played by Marian Wald), Kearney is wide-eyed and frothing. At the end of the play, with the Captain comatose in his self-induced derangement, we wonder if there might be a real doctor in the house, just in case. The portrayal is a finely nuanced physical tour de force that leaves the actor soaked in sweat and exhausted, as he holds nothing back.

Making a minor appearance is local musician Al Perry, as Corporal Nojd. The guitarist became interested in Strindberg while visiting fellow musicians in Sweden last year. "I kept seeing his name and when I came back I started reading his work," Perry says. "I really liked it. He was twisted and tormented and there's all this battle between the sexes. I guess I related."

Perry, in his first theatrical role (work as a movie extra notwithstanding), is adequate as the roguish soldier who has possibly impregnated the kitchen help. The situation allows Strindberg to insert an early discussion of biology and responsibility as a prelude to the later action.

Other roles include Jon Campbell as the village pastor, who is also Laura's brother; and Scott Seitzberg as the town's new doctor. All are overshadowed by Kearney's performance.

Kearney should not be accused of grandstanding, however. The extravagance is required and is in no way a director's self-promotion. Neither he nor Herman initially planned to be in the production, but as often happens in community theatre, were reluctantly drafted after prospective leads fell through.

It's valuable to be able to compare Strindberg to Ibsen, the two founders of realism in theatre. It's unfortunate that the tastes of our time require us to sample Strindberg-lite, rather than face head-on the unabashedly bitter brew the playwright originally concocted.

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