Call it Überdirection. That's what director Scott Feldsher's mounting of August Strindberg's 1907 nightmare of a play The Ghost Sonata feels like. From staging the first scene as a precisely orchestrated pantomime outside the antique church Sledgehammer Theatre calls home to turning the interior of the theater inside out so audience members are on the stage as actors sit in the seats staring into their eyes, this is meta-direction at its most brilliant, provoking and interesting.
Here's the trouble: while everyone leaves this show knowing they've just experienced directorial genius, they may also have the nagging feeling that that's about all they've experienced. Strindberg's gloomy ideas, his startlingly bleak poetry—all that's obscured by the intensity of Feldsher's vision. The direction doesn't feel like it serves Strindberg's text as much as it serves up his text in a frightening banquet of stimulation and excess. The cumulative effect is 100 minutes of directorial masturbation—engaging and exciting, but ultimately just as unfulfilling as a night spent alone with your hand.
One of the most influential and heavily stylized playwrights of the modern era, Strindberg can also be tough to crack. The Ghost Sonata is a perfect example: written when the playwright was turning away from conventional dramatic structure in favor of a proto-surreal style intended to evoke the impression that the stuff of our daily "lives" is only so much illusion, this play is just plain fucking weird. It starts with a young man who has been up all night touching dead people and talking to a milkmaid only he can see. An old man approaches him and learns the young man is a "Sunday child," which gives him supernatural powers.
The old man offers to introduce the younger man to the inhabitants of a house. And what a house. Its tenants include an old colonel and his fragile daughter, vampires and mummies, human parrots, and bloodthirsty cooks—all of them bound together by lies, affairs and betrayals. The old man exposes the deceptions of the house, and then things start getting really bizarre.
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What this play is about is anybody's guess. Strindberg himself wrote that "as far as the Ghost Sonata is concerned, don't ask me. . . . One enters a world of intimations where one expresses oneself in halftones and with a soft pedal, since one is ashamed to be a human being."
That vague, darkly poetic line sums up this play—and this production. Feldsher opts not to try to explain this play, instead choosing a production style intended to bring Strindberg's borderline pathological vision to life. It's heavy on audible stimuli (music composer/decomposer Pea Hicks' score is one of the best sonic trips I've gone on in a while) and visual stimuli, including garish makeup and costumes and some of the most weirdly stylized acting you'll ever see. All of it is orchestrated on David Ledsinger's impossibly taut set, which incorporates ropes that appear as if they're ready to snap at any moment, hurling the actors into the ceiling.
It's fascinating stuff, but I still felt cheated. Unless you already know Strindberg's place in modern drama, it's doubtful you're going to walk out of this Ghost Sonata thinking Strindberg was anything more than a turn-of-the-20th-century David Lynch. He was far more than that; how much more is difficult, if not impossible, to tell from this production.
ghost sonata at Sledgehammer Theatre, 1620 Sixth Ave., San Diego, (619) 544-1484. Thurs.-Sun., 8:30 p.m. Through July 23. $15-$20; students $5 off.