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A Haunting Taste of Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts.'

By Dave Irwin

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  WHEN FIRST presented more than 100 years ago, Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts was considered an abomination, a gross obscenity. However, in the age of AIDS, it may have more relevance than ever. With its themes of disease as a moral judgment, and (secondarily) of euthanasia in the ay shows remarkable resilience.

The Arizona Repertory Theatre production of Ghosts also has a lot going for it. Aside from one gimmick, it's generally true to Ibsen's vision, down to the profane touches of occasional comedy in an otherwise deadly serious tragedy.

Ibsen, of course, loved to take on the moral values of his time. First with A Doll's House and later with Ghosts, he outraged Victorian notions about society, especially regarding women. In Ghosts, he created an exceptionally strong character, widow Helen Alving (Rebecca George). She, we learn, was the real power behind her late husband, Captain Alving (Michael Sean Nickerson), a man so given to cheating, drinking and sin in general that he could be the prototype for country-and-western songs.

Widow Alving, in a deliciously underplayed irony, is about to dedicate a home for illegitimate children in memory of her late husband. Assisting her is Pastor Manders (Ravi Gahunia), as rigid and hypocritical as anyone in Dickensian London. There's also her serving girl, Regina Engstrand (Kelly Molloy); and Regina's carpenter father, Jacob Engstrand (Martin A. Papazian), who isn't really her father but you can easily guess who is.

Setting the dramatic wheels in motion is Oswald Alving (Larry Grubbs), recently returned from Paris, dying of syphilis (though neither that term nor the words "venereal disease" are ever used). Poor Oswald can't figure out how he got the disease, since he's a virgin (also stated in euphemistic terms); but again, we know whence the evil came. To make a long (two-and-a-half hour) story short, Oswald falls for Regina, forcing Mrs. Alving to reveal that she is his half-sister; the foundling house burns down mysteriously; and in an exceptionally powerful final scene, Oswald slips into a coma in his mother's arms.

Director Ocie Robinson, here fulfilling part of his MFA requirements, faced a significant challenge in the UA Laboratory Theatre. The configuration of the room is essentially in the round, forcing him to work with multiple planes, rather than simply the missing fourth wall of traditional theatre. This is where Captain Alving comes in. Dead for 10 years and therefore not appearing in Ibsen's original work, Robinson added Nickerson as a ghost (get it?) throughout most of the play, even letting him quietly haunt the stage as the audience enters the theatre. Since he has no lines, it's a pretty thankless role. Robinson also permitted Nickerson only minimal facial reaction to the cascading revelations about his character's scandalous life, further marginalizing him. His primary function, beyond the obvious metaphor, was to serve as a pointer for the audience back into the lines of sight of the interacting characters.

Staged in a circular set, the actors moved relentlessly around the implied room in a way more appropriate to a sword fight than a discussion. As a result, various lines were inaudible to different parts of the audience at varying times--a nice bit of aleatory theatre, but probably not what the director intended. Given Ibsen's 19th-century sensibilities and subtle foreshadowing, missing any dialogue can be crucial to understanding the subsequent action here.

George, an MFA student in acting, gave an exemplary performance. She found the necessary range--angry widow, shamed woman, loving mother--without striking a false note. Only in the middle of the third act did she finally seem to run out of room for her character's exasperation. By the play's final surge, however, she managed the physical and emotional crescendo needed.

Grubbs' performance is also worthy of special note, for his convincing portrayal of a young man facing death as unemotionally as possible. His body language and accent were consistent, and he easily disappeared within his character. The final moments between George and Grubbs, with her struggling to hold him, trying to decide if she could or should poison him as he lapses into a coma, achieved the kind of peak intensity that some actors and actresses don't find in a career.

Gahunia was also consistent in his role as a man obsessed by what his community would think. However, Gahunia seemed overly stiff in the role, acting more like a Klingon warrior than a man of God, undercutting the irony of the Pastor's all-too-human side. Nonetheless, there were fiery sparks in the scenes when the Pastor and Mrs. Alving sparred. On the other hand, Kelly Molloy, the youngest cast member, played her role with a breeziness more appropriate to Neil Simon than Ibsen.

A big surprise was the comic relief of Martin Papaziam as the opportunistic bumpkin woodworker. That it was a surprise was obvious in the nervous laughter as Papaziam took his character over the top, kowtowing deeply, hobbling around like Frankenstein and gesturing wildly as if flashing Norwegian gang signs. Ibsen intended to undercut the otherwise overwhelming seriousness of his play with this character, however inappropriate that may seem to our sensibilities. It was a relief when Papaziam finally got an outright laugh late in the play.

Ghosts is no longer obscene, but neither is it simply old-fashioned. Ibsen doesn't give us answers, but he does make us think. Arizona Repertory Theatre and the UA Theatre Department can take pride in how well they've served this work.

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