Ghost Sonata: Delusion & Death Explored

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christopher o’neill & rachel hastings

August Strindberg’s 1907 play Ghost Sonata is a bleak exploration of the filth, decay, dysfunction and dishonesty that plagued a society in the midst of an Industrial Revolution and left the crumbling shadows of a former Aristocracy and generations of people clinging in vain to the memory of an identity and a world that no longer exists. Jure Gantar’s production that plays until October 19th, 2013 at DalTheatre brings Strindberg’s madhouse of characters to vivid life just in time for Halloween.

The story, as Strindberg admits several times in the play, is a complex one. It centres on a young Student who is enraptured by a seemingly idealistic large house and dreams of someday being invited to dine there. His path crosses with an Old Man, who sees in him the opportunity to save his daughter, and suddenly the Student finds himself in this very house and yet, he quickly realizes that it is not at all as it had first appeared to be. In fact, inside the residents of the house sit like ghosts at silent suppers because they have grown weary of one another. A woman speaks like a parrot while hiding in the closet. A cook drains the life from her masters instead of nourishing them, while a Janitress creates filth for them to clean up. The dead roam among the living and as secrets are revealed, people die behind death screens to spare themselves from the agony and the burden of the labour of existence.

The fourth year DalTheatre Acting students capture beautifully both the sense of insanity and irony in a world so dark and dreary that it has lost its love, its joy and any sense of purpose or meaning. Scott Baker as the Student initially shows the most optimism for the future, but there is a weariness and a heaviness in him from the beginning that immediately captures the essence of August Strindberg, a man who was deeply tormented by darkness throughout his life, while continuing to forge forward in the innovation of the theatre despite an escalating cynical World View. Taylor Chancellor is reminiscent of an Absurdist trickster as the Colonial’s servant, Bengtsson, with a maniacal laugh suggestive of the fact that he, in fact, holds all the cards, despite being of the lower class. He also conjures imagery of a Fun House mirror version of Jean from Strindberg’s earlier play Miss Julie. Nicole Adduci has great comic timing as the Mummy who doubles as a parrot, while Paige Smith ardently captures the idea of being the shadow of the Young Lady, suggestive of once having life and morrow in her bones, but having been entirely sucked dry by the insatiable feeding of her house. Hilary Adams shines especially brightly as the vampire-like Cook, whose vivid physicality, sucking eyes and creepy smile immediately root us in the concepts of the lower classes feasting on the decaying Aristocracy beautifully and wordlessly.

John Pennoyer’s costume design beautifully reflects how the colour has been drained and washed out of these characters and the world they inhabit. Ellen Gibling’s physical set roots us immediately in an Industrial town that has become dirty and disheveled, which works well to give further context for the decay of the characters. The choice to have the house being projected on the back wall challenged me because it seemed to inhabit a different dramaturgical concept than the rest of the play, which was as Realist as one can present a play riddled with ghosts, mummies and vampires. I liked that the projections suggested that the house, and the people in it, were but shadows of their former selves. I liked that in the Third Movement, as the characters are revealed in all their falsehoods, corruption and artifice, that the lights are so bright that it highlights all the flaws and the dust on the set, as well as reminding the audience that we are in a theatre, a place where things are not real, and not as they seem, where everyone plays a role different from themselves. Yet, I wanted there to be a stronger correlation between these ideas, the projections and the other dramaturgical aspects of the play, which were more interested in the exploration of the characters’ mental health and their connection with Strindberg himself.

In all, Jure Gantar’s production of Ghost Sonata is a wry societal commentary that is very much of its time, but also strongly resonant to today’s world. It is also an imaginative, grim and at times surprisingly funny, venture into an odd theatrical world that is unmistakably Strindberg.

Post Script: I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see the other cast of Ghost Sonata perform briefly, for just one scene, at the Naming Ceremony for the new Fountain School of Performing Arts on Thursday. Rachel Hastings, as the Mummy, and Chris O’Neill as the Old Man have a beautiful rapport with one another that illuminates nicely the shadows of their past relationship. Hastings also oscillates adeptly between being hysterically funny and utterly heartbreaking and back again. I recommend trying to see both casts if you can because in each case the actors have interpreted the same role entirely differently, which makes for a fascinating contemplation and discussion about how much power the actors sometimes have to change the plays they are in (sometimes profoundly) through the choices of their characters. 

DalTheatre’s Production of August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata plays at the David MacK. Murray Studio Theatre (6101 University Avenue, Halifax) until October 19th. Tickets for all shows are now available for purchase through the Dalhousie Arts Centre Box Office, in person, over the phone at 494-3820, or online at https://kil-dacweb-2.cohn.dal.ca/. All tickets are general admission, $14 regular, $7 students and seniors. 

Show Times and Casts are as follows: 

Friday, October 18 at 8:00pm
Saturday, October 19 at 2:00pm
Saturday, October 19 at 8:00pm

SATURDAY MATINEE:
Old Man — Chris O’Neill 
Mummy — Rachel Hastings
Young Lady — Chelsea Arsenault
Janitress — Paige Smith 
Fiancée — Nicole Adduci
Dead Man — Taylor Olson

FRIDAY, SATURDAY EVENING:
Old Man — Taylor Olson
Mummy — Nicole Adduci
Young Lady — Paige Smith 
Janitress — Chelsea Arsenault
Fiancée — Rachel Hastings 
Dead Man — Chris O’Neill

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