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Beate Hein Bennett;

Tormented to Death by Life
“The Isle of the Dead” and “The Pelican”
A World Premiere

February 7 – February 22, 2020
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, New York, NY
Presented by The Strindberg Rep
Wed. – Sat.@ 8 PM, Sun.@ 3 PM
$18 gen. adm., $15 students and seniors
Tickets: 212-254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett February 12, 2020

Elise (Natalie Menna), in cahoots with her son-in-law Axel (Ryan Feyk), hides her deceased husband's letter from her daughter, Gertrude (Baily Newman).

Theater for the New City and The Strindberg Rep must be commended for presenting August Strindberg’s two chamber plays together on stage for the first time ever. Strindberg had written the play “The Pelican” in 1907 for his Intimate Theater in Stockholm and intended “The Isle of the Dead” as a prologue. However, the two plays were never played together until Ingmar Bergman directed them as a radio play in 2003; it was his last dramatic production. The new translation from Swedish into English by Robert Greer, the Artistic Director of The Strindberg Rep and director of this production, has dramatic bite and lays bare the psychic angst of the characters. And I have to say, it is Strindberg at his most virulently morbid in an Expressionist style that almost anticipates theater of the absurd.

In "Isle of the Dead," The Teacher (Gabe Bettio) reveals to The Dead (Brad Fryman) truths of his life by showing him "The Pelican." Behind: Jay William Thomas in "The Pelican."

“The Isle of the Dead” begins with a man laid out on a catafalque in his living room, his portrait hanging above the fireplace. Motionless, hands folded on his chest, he appears to be in a state of slumber or death—we’re not sure since he is not dressed in garb appropriate for burial. Another man enters the scene and begins to talk to him. It gradually becomes clear that the man has died in his sleep and the other is a spirit from beyond, a “bodhisattva” (according to the program) who needles him towards accepting the truth of his falsely lived life. Strindberg infuses the bodhisattva’s speeches with Buddhist wisdom. However, what spills out of the dead man is a self-defensive litany of suffering: the frustrations of a poorly paid school teacher, the constant threat of poverty, a wife whose desires for material goods are beyond his capacity, and children who are alienated from him. The bodhisattva’s suggestions to let go of such mundane matters as grading papers and household worries are not sufficient to assuage the inner turmoil of the dead man. So he suggests that the two watch a play—they take their seats in the audience on the first row as “The Pelican” opens with the wife storming into the room berating her servant, an elderly woman, who is ready to retort one to one and finally leaves in a huff. The mood is set.

In "The Pelican," Margaret, the maid (Mary Tierney) confronts the diabolical wife, Elise (Natalie Menna).

“The Pelican” is a tour de force one act play in which every member of the dead man’s family is unmasked, beginning with the ravenous appetites of the young widow Elise –she’s 38 while her husband was 62 at his death. She appears to be starved for sex and seduces her son-in-law before he was even married to her daughter Gertrude, an 18 year old child-woman. She eats all the best foods while keeping her children and husband on a starvation diet of mostly porridge. She spends the money for heat on new furnishings while keeping everyone freezing. And she abuses her servants. All this while hoarding money from her ill-paid husband and browbeating him for his lowly status as a middle school teacher. In short, the wife Elise is presented as a monster, the exact opposite of the mythical pelican who will feed her brood with her own blood—the play title is thus an ironic touch. In front of the observing dead husband, the play unravels the life of this family.

Axel (Ryan Feyk) and Elise (Natalie Menna) search her deceased husband's desk for hidden drawers.

Brad Fryman appears only in “The Isle of the Dead” as the Dead Man who laments his wasted life and simply wants to sleep. His lamentable self-justification of trying to accommodate his wife while being sucked dry is a common Strindbergian characterization of male victimhood. Mr. Fryman, however, also betrays his lament with an undercurrent of a sly roguish quality that modifies his male victimhood. His spiritual Teacher, the “bodhisattva” is played with suave superiority—after all he is at home in the realm of the dead—by Gabe Bettio. In “The Pelican” the dominant part of the wife Elise is played by Natalie Menna. She is a veritable virago, bitter and harsh, but also pitiably desperate when she feels that she is losing her hold on people. Jay William Thomas plays her son Fredrik; he is a twenty year old law student who drinks himself into a state of oblivion but is also his mother’s nemesis since he knows about her duplicitous affair with her son-in-law Axel, almost equal in age to Elise, and played with slick economy by Ryn Feyk. One more family member completes the tragic circle: the young Gertrude (18) played by Bailey Newman with a delicate innocence that turns to hard-edged flint upon her discovery of her husband’s betrayal and her mother’s perverse actions. The only character who escapes this destructive maelstrom is the old cook Margret played by Mary Tierney, a long time associate artist of the Strindberg Rep company.

Gertrude (Baily Newman) and Fredrik (Jay William Thomas) watch their house burning around them.

The production in TNC’s Cino Theater benefits from a wide stage space. The set designed and built by Mark Marcante was a full wood-paneled living room with all the accoutrements of bourgeois life with props designed by Lytza Colon. The lighting by Alexander Bartenieff bathes the stage mostly in a dim cool glow. Every now and then atmospheric music by sound designer Roy T. Chang alleviates the grim atmosphere among this dysfunctional family. Costumes by Janet Mervin have the basic characteristics of the turn of the 19th/20th century and were well chosen for the characters. The production is handsome and because of the rare opportunity to see a Strindberg play these days in this city, it is well worth making one’s way to TNC to see these highly dramatic chamber plays.

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