Extreme Theater: Strindberg's Chamber Plays in Rep at the Cutting Ball
|James Carpenter and Danielle O'Hare in the Cutting Ball's ambitious Strindberg Cycle.|
We'll admit it; we thought we knew the playwright August Strindberg, who died 100 years ago this year. We'd seen his most famous anti-heroine, Miss Julie, of the eponymous play, kill herself enough times and watched enough Strindberg and Helium videos to buy into his bad rap: He might be one of the fathers of modern drama, we thought, but he's a sad, angry little misogynist whose works practically bludgeon audiences with their misanthropy and severe realism.
We are not alone. The Cutting Ball Theater, whose ambitious project The Strindberg Cycle: The Chamber Plays in Rep is in its final week, knows all too well its audience's preconceptions of the Swedish playwright, but that hasn't stopped the company from setting out to change them.
Strindberg called Storm, Burned House, Ghost Sonata, The Pelican, and The Black Glove his chamber plays for a few different reasons. Like chamber music compared to symphonies, they are distilled versions of some of his larger works. They're also thematically related, tropes and phrases, plot points and character types popping up from one play to the next. Finally, they were written for, if not an actual chamber, Strindberg's own Intimate Theater, which in contrast to many other playhouses in the early 20th century, was small enough in size to allow for subtle performances instead of huge, readily visible gestures.
But the chamber plays are rarely staged. They were difficult for Strindberg's audiences -- they're avant-garde, and in the wrong director's hands the more narration-heavy passages could become inert -- and they're difficult for contemporary ones. But thanks to a grant from the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, the Cutting Ball has been staging Paul Walsh's new translations of all five plays in repertory -- which constitutes the first such undertaking, in any language, and also the biggest project in Cutting Ball's history.
As if that weren't enough, the company has taken the ambition one level further: Throughout most of the run, Cutting Ball has been staging one or two of the short plays per night, but for the Cycle's last two weekends, it's been offering "marathon days:" all five shows in less than 12 hours.
The Bay Area doesn't offer many opportunities for extreme theater-going. San Franciscans typically like their plays to fit neatly between eating artisan meals and drinking local wine (or at least before BART stops running). But all-day theater experiences aren't worthwhile just as exercises in endurance. They also offer the chance to truly immerse yourself in a dramatic universe, to experience theater not just as a diverting outing but as a deep artistic exploration.