Rosmersholm Is Where the Heart Is

Photo by Jim VolzOkay, so modernizing Henrik Ibsen by way of biker babes doesn't work. (See Jana J. Monji's “Henrik Ibsen vs. Harley-Davidson.”) But isn't some kind of gimmick needed to juice up the man's words? After all, the guy was a Norwegian, and that just soundsoff the map. He also wrote plays in the latter half of the 19th century, a time when concepts such as civil rights, woman's suffrage and Buffy the Vampire Slayerwere nothing more than idealistic pipe dreams. So any production that doesn't try to modernize Ibsen is doomed to be nothing more than an inaccessible exercise in dusty old theater appreciation, right?

Wrong—at least if we're talking about Cal State Fullerton's current production of Ibsen's Rosmersholm.Director Todd Kulczyk doesn't get cute, wacky or avant-garde in the slightest with this by-the-numbers production of one of Ibsen's lesser-known plays. Instead, he does something that very few directors anywhere do: he trusts the playwright implicitly. And you know, there's a reason they call Ibsen the Father of the Modern Theatre—the guy's plays kick ass.

Rosmersholmisn't one of Ibsen's most popular works, although it is one of his best. It's not well-known among today's audiences because it lacks the easy contemporary feminist resonance of A Doll's Houseor Hedda Gabler or the obvious us-vs.-them mentality of An Enemy of the People.But it is one of his subtler explorations of human psychology, fitting in well with the overriding theme that runs through Ibsen's works: the conflict between the idealized search for individual self-realization and the restrictions and obligations forced on that individual by society. Rosmersholmis a riveting drama constructed on a very precise scale, one of Ibsen's later, more overtly symbolic works in which the gloomy Norwegian sea supplies plenty of forbidding context, leading up to one of the most tragic climaxes in this already fairly gloomy playwright's oeuvre.

In Rosmersholm, the battle isn't so much the external conflict between man and his society as it is an internal conflict between a man's desire for individual fulfillment and the dictates of his conscience. Basically, how much is the play's protagonist, John Rosmer (a suitably strong but painfully flawed Josh Odor), willing to lose in order to find himself?

Rosmer is the last in a long line of Rosmers who have ruled—morally speaking—a small coastal town of Norway for years. He's a pastor who lost his faith after his wife, Beata, took a supposedly deliberate header into a fjord. When Rosmer's arch-conservative brother-in-law Rector Kroll (an appropriately blustery John Wilds) seeks to enlist him in a battle against the insurgent Liberal party in town, Rosmer informs him that he's ready for new ideas, a new morality and a new way of life. The infuriated Kroll then begins a slander campaign against Rosmer, alleging that his feelings for Rebecca West (a finely-drawn Hattie Davis), a close friend of his former wife, drove poor Beata to suicide. Between discovering who's really behind Beata's death and the intense struggle between Rosmer's ambition, guilt and fears of defying social convention, there's plenty of dramatic grist for the mill.

And the first act rocks, of course. It's when all the conflict and politics are set up—and when the two most interesting characters (next to Rosmer) are introduced: Peter Mortensgard (a slimy Rob Hahn), the slimy liberal crusader, and Ulrik Brendel (a scene-stealing Omid Abtahi in a remarkably memorable supporting role), Rosmer's idealistic, left-wing professor.

Unfortunately, the second act doesn't flow as smoothly. Mostly John-and-Rebecca time, the act seems too wordy and melodramatic for my taste. There's not a whole lot you can do with all this exposition, and while Kulczyk and his actors gamely invest each moment with meaning, I tended to drift off from time to time.

Still, even with the occasional fog, this is a damn fine production of a rarely produced play by the daddy of modern drama. And if honoring our ancestors is something the theater should be concerned with, this is a fitting example of just that.

Rosmersholm at Cal State Fullerton's Arena Theatre, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3371. Thurs.-Fri., March 21-22, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 N 6:30 p.m. $7-$9.

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