Haunting for Answers


By Henrik Ibsen
Directed and Choreographed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj
REBEL Theater Company (www.rebeltheater.org)
Abrons Arts Center
Equity Showcase (closed)
Review by Michael D. Jackson


Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881) became famous as a model of “naturalism” and a social-problem play, dealing with adultery, illegitimacy and syphilis. As a social-problem play it has been outdated for a century, and as a play of realism, it could hardly be considered so if presented as is on a contemporary stage. In the 19th century, Ibsen’s skill as a dramatist made Ghosts seem natural, yet the series of coincidences that make up the plot are struck, blow after blow, in order to break apart theatre traditions before the emergence of Ibsen’s naturalistic theatre. For this reason, the play is on the reading list of every Theatre Arts undergraduate. And nearly two decades ago, this writer sat in his Modern Drama in Production class to discuss the relevance of Ibsen’s Ghosts and likened Oswald’s venereal disease to AIDS. Director Maharaj is not the first to modernize the story by making it an AIDS play, but he goes beyond that to do much more, with results that are truly astounding.


Although this Ghosts has all its ducks in a row, it was so adapted that it might be referred to as “Maharaj’s Ghosts,” for the setting in 1982 Jamaica during a period of extreme ignorance towards the AIDS epidemic. Ibsen’s lines more or less remain, though they are reconstructed to work in contemporary language of place and time. Likewise the characters’ names are changed. Mrs. Alving becomes Mrs. Andrews and Oswald becomes Barrington. Although the adapted dialogue can be heard as naturalistic, the production is highly conceptual. Added into the mix is a Greek chorus of sorts, known as orphans. The orphans literalize the ghosts of the Andrews home by posing as framed portraits on the wall, and later in ghostly makeup, watching the proceedings with utter stillness until they let loose to haunt Mrs. Andrews outright. As an entr’acte to the second half, the orphans add Jamaican flavor with a spirited tribal dance. These extras give the production color, and perhaps the strongest reminder of the setting after the accents, but it is no more than a novelty. If these flourishes were gone, we would still have what is most important: an excellently acted, modern production of Ghosts. If Maharaj needed to adapt the play to this extreme to find a way into it, he has done it for himself and the cast, for it allows them to rise to great heights of theatre, and that is all the audience really needs in order to enjoy a production of an old chestnut.


The cast, one and all, is excellent. Sharon Tshai King as Mrs. Andrews and Edward Davis as Barrington are superb in a revelatory scene of Barrington’s disclosure of having come home to die of AIDS. And from the old plot point of the burning orphanage to the end, the production is as exciting as anything seen on the stage in years. With Ibsen, the question of whether or not Mrs. Alving administered the lethal pills for a mercy killing of Oswald after the final curtain has either been left up in the air, or decided upon by each new director. Ibsen himself said that he did not know what Mrs. Alving did, but in Maharaj’s Ghosts he is clear, giving the ending its inevitable outcome as well as reaching the greatest dramatic potential of the story. If the REBEL Theater Company can keep up this level of work, we shall have some exciting theatre to look forward to in the seasons to come.


Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2006 Michael D. Jackson



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