Reviving Two Bergman Works on Stage

PersonaFor being the centennial of Ingmar Bergman’s birth, there seems to be very little evidence of the Swedish director’s work around. It’s hard to find even his best known films; his name is known to some generations only as a reference in the work of Woody Allen.

And the average age of the opening night for a brilliant Dutch revival of “After the Rehearsal” and “Persona” at the Kennedy Center Thursday tended to be those who could recall seeing all of Bergman’s films upon release or in repertory from the 1950s to early 80s.

There are few screenwriters who plumbed so deeply into the human experience, with touches of a bottomless pessimism one would scarcely speak aloud let alone amplified on stage.

The internationally celebrated Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who received two Tony Awards for his “A View from the Bridge” and another nomination for his Broadway staging of “The Crucible,” has found an artistic muse in classic Bergman, having previously adapted his “Scenes from a Marriage” and “Cries and Whispers.”

Using his stark, minimalist style, van Hove’s adaptations of “After the Rehearsal,” a television play Bergman made immediately after “Fanny and Alexander,” paired with an adaptation of what Bergman considered his masterpiece, “Persona,” are resonant and rich.

Both concerns issues of the stage so basic they are hardly spoken: What do actors do? What is real? Are their real lives just roles as well? How do we proceed?

With the terrific cast from his Toneelgroep Amsterdam in Holland for which van Hove developed these works, he uses them as the Swedish director did, as a kind of repertory group, who show up in both productions.

In “After the Rehearsal,” the gruff and experienced director Hendrik Vogler (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) broods onstage for an impending production of Strindberg’s “A Dream Play” as the young actress Anna (Gaite Jansen) returns, ostensibly looking for a bracelet she left behind.

They talk about the nature of the role and the development of acting, and the magic possible on the stage on which they stand.

Eventually, the director starts to remember Anna’s late mother, an actor as well, who was also a lover and a bit of a lost alcoholic. And soon the mother Rachel (Marieke Heebink) is on the stage as well in a desperate scene from their past.

Just the dialogue from these interactions are so heavy and cut so deep that they stand out from anything else – in other productions or in real life, a reminder that Bergman was emotionally playing for keeps at all time.

Scholten van Aschat has the kind of deep-voiced dismissive philosophical mumble of Bergman regular Max Von Sydow or Erland Josephson in the original production. This despite everyone speaking not Swedish but Dutch (a language that is more guttural than one would expect), with English subtitles. The effect of the brooding interior dialog may be accomplished by tiny headset microphones allowing actors to speak more realistically.

Jansen, who is also featured in the third season of Netflix’ “Peaky Binders,” plays a more complex character than one would immediately assume, who toys with her director on a couple of levels. And Heebink is a powerhouse as an actress who fears she may never act again.

Like her daughter, oblivious to this reverie, she keeps putting on and taking off her coat when she realizes she has something more to say.

The stagecraft of the scene – with battered backstage furniture, desks and lamps – uses a touch of what Bergman used in “Persona,” with a projection of Anna’s face taken with a live camera on the wall.

The drama seemed to continue during intermission as that furniture had to be hauled up the aisles in preparation for “Persona.”

It all made sense when it began, as the room became a sterile hospital room that suddenly broke down to become an instant island getaway with water all around on which the actors sloshed and splashed.

The minimalist work of van Ove owes a good deal to the stark designs of scenographer and lighting design of his partner Jan Versweyveld, whose spectacular setting also makes way for a prosaic onstage cloudburst and windstorm (with the stage mechanisms of fans and pumps that make it possible all clearly visible).

Van Ove uses nudity as a metaphor for the naked honesty in the script, and there is a lot of it particularly in “Persona,” which begins with the stricken actress, Elisabeth Vogler (is it possible this is the wife of the director in “After the Rehearsal” with the same name? After all her husband, played by the same actor in the same clothes, also appears).

Vogler (Heebink), who lies naked on a metal table, has been mute, we are told, speechless since a performance of “Electra” in which she starred. Jansen plays the young nurse hired to watch over her and help heal her from this perplexing malady at first in the institution and then at a waterside retreat.

At first she is in awe of the famous actress, but as she talks and talks and shares some of her deepest secrets, she begins to resent that she is receiving no feedback at all. In one artful move, she tries to become the actress, speaking on her behalf, the water all around them drenching and baptizing them in new personas.

Here, Heebink conveys a lot while having to say nothing; it is Jansen who has a revelatory moment on stage in her long speeches, as elemental and barrier-bursting as the stagecraft all around them.

As strong as “After the Rehearsal” was; audiences sat as mute as Mrs. Volger during the whole of the absorbing “Persona.” Van Ove joined the small cast for ovations when the terrific double feature concluded.

The remarkable visiting production only lasts this weekend; book a ticket and then get to work tracking down old Bergman films to complete a proper centennial.

 

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