Written in 1881 by renowned Norwegian playwright Henrik Johan Ibsen, GHOSTS was first staged in 1882 in Chicago, Illinois, by a Danish acting troupe. Typical of a writer dubbed by Danish critic Georg Brandes as “the most modern of moderns,” Ibsen openly introduced topics which were never mentioned in polite society at the advent of the Gay 90s – which were anything but. Topics such as venereal disease, incest, religion, sexuality, and euthanasia simply did not exist. And yet here they were for all to see in a play which was certainly ahead of its time by decades. Even though Ibsen was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1902 1903, and 1904, he never claimed the award, so controversial were his writings. But 2022 is clearly far removed from 1881 – and certainly more open to all those forbidden topics. The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble presents the Los Angeles premiere of British director Richard Eyre’s adaptation of GHOSTS. Pared down to its essence and presented in just 90 minutes, GHOSTS is still a startling and emotionally draining tale of people living with so many elephants in the room that they can barely find a spot to breathe.
Recently widowed Helene Alving (Pamela J. Gray) may well be living the proverbial life of quiet desperation as secrets pile up and begin to intrude on her existence. She is desperate to conceal her late husband’s philandering and is building an orphanage in his memory to shield herself from improper thoughts (and neighbor’s wagging tongues). Pastor Manders (Barry Del Sherman) has offered his help, and we soon learn that it was his counsel which sent the runaway wife back to her husband years before. Meanwhile, Helene’s son Oswald (Alex Barlas) has returned from Paris where his mother sent him to study – and keep him from his errant father’s bad influence. To Helene’s chagrin, Oswald begins to develop a relationship with Regina Engstrand, the Alving family maid (Viva Hassis Gentes) and the daughter of a scheming conman Jacob (J. Stephen Brantley). It is at this juncture that the skeletons in Helene’s closet begin to do a jig. Clearly, there is something “rotten in Denmark;” and it is Ibsen’s job to let the audience know exactly what that is. Even if the society of the day is not ready to hear the truth.
Skillfully directed by Bart DeLorenzo, GHOSTS rapidly goes from conjecture to reality in this steamy drama about a seemingly average family which turns out to be anything but. He is ably assisted by a talented ensemble cast who give each role their all. Richard Eyre’s adaptation leaps from intense to more intense as he spotlights the principal plot points in the longer Ibsen play. Many subtleties are relegated to the deleted file bin as the drama sprints along. Eyre also pays lip service to current thinking by inserting a book on female empowerment into Helene’s current readings. The effect of the condensation, however, is probably even more shocking and intense than the original. In fact, as one audience member said after the closing curtain: “That was exhausting.”
Fans of Ibsen’s plays will certainly enjoy seeing this adapted version. They may be left to wonder what secrets are hidden behind facades presented by some of their family and friends. GHOSTS is nothing less than thought provoking, a fascinating study of a family in chaos.
GHOSTS runs through October 23, 2022, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays (dark 9/16, 9/23, 9/30), Saturdays, and Mondays (dark 9/12) and 4 p.m. on Sundays (dark 9/11). The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. Tickets range from $25 to $40 (artists and educators $20 on Friday 9/9 and Sunday 10/9). Mondays Pay-What-You-Will. For information and reservations, call 310-477-2055 ext. 2 or go online.