The Alving Estate, an intriguing and instructive if ultimately unsatisfying experiment, promises an immersive staging of Ibsen’s Ghosts.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
The two companies that conceived the show, Journey Lab and Deaths Head Theatrical, made the inspiring choice of holding it at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. Now a museum, the mansion is the oldest surviving house in Manhattan, at one point during the American Revolution the headquarters for George Washington and, weirdly enough, fifty years later the home of Aaron Burr.
The elegant interior, with its large portrait paintings and narrow staircases, feels full of history and mystery, as is Ibsen’s play, a tale of a family cursed by its history.
But the clever and ambitious conception of the Alving Estate, whose limited run of eight performances ends today, winds up in its execution being both too little and too much.
A prime illustration of this paradox – of what’s best and worst about The Alving Estate — occurs in the first moments, when the audience gathers in the basement of the house, and members of the cast hang up our coats, offer us drinks, hand us a list of rules, and entice us to play Blackjack. Instead of money, we make wages with our secrets, which they ask us to write down on little pieces of paper. One of the cast members who has been guiding us (Sandra Glinka), dressed as a maid, then offers the audience instructions for the evening, but her instructions include asides in which she puts down another cast member (Andrew Hamling) who had been officiating at the blackjack. For those of us who have brushed up on our Ibsen, this moment has the suddenness and brilliance of lightning: We realize that Glinka is portraying Regina Engstrand, a maid who has ambitious designs on Osvald Alving, the scion of the estate, and that (as in the play) she has contempt for her father, Jakob Engstrand, a scheming drunken carpenter (portrayed by Andrew Hamling, who was also the blackjack dealer.) This is theoretically a terrific incorporation of Ibsen’s play with immersive theater’s playfulness. In practice, however, American audiences don’t know Ibsen’s play well enough for this oblique reference to strike home. A scattering of more or less conventional scenes with dialogue follow over the next 90 minutes or so, but too little for the average theatergoer to get a handle on a drama that is heavily plotted with secrets and shocking revelation, involving everything from venereal disease to incest to euthanasia. Little of that comes through.
It might have been wonderful to attend a more-or-less straightforward production of Ghosts at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, each scene staged in sequence in an appropriate room of the house. But instead, the creative team seems intent on hitting as many immersive marks as possible, right down to the required wearing of masks, a la “Sleep No More,” this time surgical masks along with cotton gloves. We are told that we are applying for a job as household help; the distributed one-page set of rules, which forbid us from speaking or sitting on furniture, etc., also inform us that our duty is to observe “all staff members and their daily operations.” The five characters of Ibsen’s play are supplemented by a baker’s dozen of household staff, who – accompanied by eerie music, of course — rush around and stand around, serve dinner to the main characters, bounce into each other rhythmically, and whisper to individual audience members: “Be careful whom you trust.” All this helps establish an appropriate atmosphere of haunting secrets and mysterious lies, but it’s not enough to keep us engaged, and no match for Ibsen.
Helene Alving – Phoebe Dunn
Osvald Alving – Michael DeBartolo
Pastor Manders – Timothy Larsen
Regina ‘Engstrand’ – Sandra Glinka
Jakob Engstrand – Andrew Hamling