Original Miniseries Teleplays by Ingmar Bergman
English Adaptation for the Stage by Emily Mann
Directed by Ivo Van Hove
New York Theatre Workshop

Reviewed by David Spencer

Director Ivo Van Hove is an avant-garde-ist with a compulsion to put traditional texts through a filter (some might say a blender) of symbolic reimagining that variously utilizes (and overlaps) theatre games, abstract imagery, deconstruction and dream logic. I would think that any dramatist with a new, original, straightforward  play, seeking a production that is similarly direct, uncluttered and unfettered would consent to trust Van Hove only at his or her peril; but so long as his playing field is texts that have already established iconic identities elsewhere, there can be a certain excitement in seeing what his renegade sensibility brings to the party. Not always: his experimentation can also run to the extremes of ponderousness and pretentiousness. But when he’s on his game—which is really to say, when his game and the source material find common, fertile ground—you can be rewarded with something like his interpretation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, as rendered in English by Emily Mann.

            He takes Bergman’s troubled couple, Johann and Marianne, and trifurcates them into twewntysomethings (Alex Hurt and Susannah Flood), thirtysomethings (Dallas Roberts and Roslyn Ruff) and middle-agers (Arliss Howard and Tina Benko). The New York Theatre Workshop’s typical proscenium space has been dismantled in favor of a similar and circular “tripartating” in Act One: There are three small stages, separated by walls, with the upstage wall being a window to a common, highly visible “offstage” area, where everything that in the script would be understood as unseen, is inaudibly played out. The audience is likewise divided into three, and three representative scenes are performed simultaneously on the small, individual forestages. When each scene finishes, its respective audience is directed to move to one of the other two stages, until each audience has seen each scene. (Yes, each set of actors plays its respective scene three times in a row.) And while the unwritten, implied dramas glimpsed behind the windows are literalized via silent action, the audible drama from the other two stages is overheard. At first this is but an ambience consigned (more or less) to the background. But as you move to the second and then third scene, it becomes the history of the central relationship, reverberating in past and future echoes.

            This is followed by a 30 minute intermission in which the tripartite sets pierces are cleared, its walls lifted into a makeshift flyspace.

            Then the audience re-enters to find themselves in an arena; theatre in the round. Now the play proceeds chronologically.

            And I must stop myself here from describing things further. For while the game plan of the first act is evident early (and certainly once you’ve transitioned from the first scene to the second), the variations of Act Two are best experienced as a surprise.

            Nor can I give you a definitive opinion. Scenes from a Marrtiage, van Hove style, will elicit a range of responses. As a brief example: I didn’t think the casting of the younger couple was ideal. They seemed callow to me; not just in keeping with the text, but in seeming to deliver first draft work from a scene study class, as if the couple they portrayed were not informed by a notion of their existence offstage, as if there were no history to them offstage. Another audience member might well argue with me that such was precisely the point. Van Hove is interested in literalization and naturalism only insofar as it’s a tool to make his point, or convey his effect. And given the complex game he is playing here, Scenes from a Marriage may well be the most like a Rorschach test of any production he’s directed in NYC.

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