Sometimes theater can be a religious experience, just as sometimes a church service can be wonderfully theatrical. Yet sometimes a play is so sure of its meaning and appeal that it isn't inherently dramatic, and more than anything it resembles a minister preaching to the choir. Kaj Munk's 1925 play Ordet falls into this category, even as it was given a reverent and respectful production by Handcart Ensemble. As directed by J. Scott Reynolds, it was presented straight, with no re-imagining, and no interpolations. Handcart's mission to "bring new life to material that is underperformed" is admirable, but this production's respect did not yield theatricality.
The play's conflict is between Borgen (Bob Armstrong), a landowner/farmer, and Rueben (Bill Tatum), the same. Their differences stem from each one's belief in a disparate version of Christianity -- Reuben's doesn't allow dancing, card games, or much in the way of enjoyment. Fair enough as a set-up, but before you can cross Romeo and Juliet with Footloose, there's the matter of Borgen's youngest son Anders (James Mack), in love with Reuben's daughter Esther (Angela Brinton). Then there's Borgen's oldest son Mikkel (Todd Parmley), who isn't enough of a believer to warrant Borgen's leaving him the farm, and Mikkel's pregnant wife Inger (Jennifer Gawlik), who believes that miracles are happening all around, all the time. But the symbolism crown goes to Borgen's middle son Johannes (Tom Martin). After a sort of breakdown following the death of his fiancée, Johannes believes himself to be Jesus.
But between the translation and the adaptation, what life there is in Ordet (which means "The Word") has been drained out. The stilted dialogue doesn't make the play be of another time and place, it just seems affected. Beliefs are argued and defended, everyday matters of illness, life, and death affect the characters, events cause outbursts and the occasional changed mind, but there is no surprise, not even in the supposed miracle that ends the play. There's no other way the play could have ended and still be as reverential as it is, particularly with the mostly purposeful acting.
Of the actors, the ones with the most spark were Tatum as Reuben, who at least seemed to believe what he was saying -- that in fact he had just thought of what he said; and Martin's Johannes, who in the second act is jolted out of his Jesus act by a death he believes he caused. Only once, in the second act, does a real character-driven dramatic theme arise. Mikkel and Inger's daughter Maren (Amanda Sprecher) talks with Johannes about Inger, who is quite ill. Johannes (in his Jesus mode) tells her that if Inger dies, she will live in the glory of heaven. Maren believes him, but still prefers her mother alive. This brings up real issues, conflicts and feelings, but it wasn't dwelt on by playwright or director.
The play was produced with loving care, in the wide-open space of Theatre 315. It was well-costumed (design by Nicole Frachiseur) and had a simple but effective set (designed by Douglas Fleandro) -- it always seemed as though someone should be looking in through the upstage windows that were suspended outside their frames. Eric Cope's lighting had some unnecessary touches -- it didn't help the play speak for itself. But as for meaning and miracles -- perhaps the play comes down to the question, when you have faith no explanation is needed; if not, no explanation is possible. While there isn't anything wrong with either case, much more is needed to be dramatically satisfying. There was an award-winning 1955 Danish movie version of Ordet that likely carried it off visually (the director, Carl Dreyer, had a talent for visual composition as drama), but here all was cut-and-dried, much like a sermon full of promises you've heard before.
Also with Barbara Ayres Bruno, Mala Grewal, Bob Harbaum, Eric John, Dan Leeds, Lucy McMichael, Karlee Roberts, and Joanne Rowland.
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Copyright 2004 David Mackler