As we’ve recently been reminded, sex, power, and control are a highly combustible mix of issues. The notion of mandating insurance coverage for contraception brought out the bully in more than one outraged American male.
But while a certain radio commentator crossed a line and was rightly condemned, it’s worth noting that his sexist sneering was founded on fear. Men, after all, have held most positions of power for most of human history. Watching this control slip away is, to put it mildly, disconcerting.
The push for — and backlash against — gender equality is hardly new. In late-19th-century Scandinavia, Henrik Ibsen chronicled the conflict in classic plays like A Doll’s House. His contemporary, August Strindberg, addressed it in his own way in such dark dramas as Miss Julie, The Father, and the lesser-known Creditors, which will be staged by the Ensemble Theatre Company beginning Saturday night.
“There’s a lot of sexual heat in Strindberg’s plays,” said artistic director Jonathan Fox, who is staging the intense, 90-minute drama, which premiered in 1889. “The passion just comes pouring out. I think he was terrified of women’s power.”
“Strindberg was a crazy bastard in a lot of ways,” added Charles Pasternak, a Los Angeles–based actor who is part of the three-person cast. “But if he was misogynistic, he was too good an artist to let it break into his work. The woman in this play is masterfully drawn. She has faults, just as the men do. While the men will try to blame her, she gives it right back equally well — better at times.”
The play centers around a female writer, her husband, and a man he meets at a seaside resort. (Strindberg partially based it on his first marriage.) Once the wife arrives on the scene, the stranger’s identity and motives become clear, and a power struggle ensues, with each member of the triangle determined to get the upper hand.
“Strindberg intentionally leaves a lot ambiguous,” said Pasternak, who is artistic director of L.A.-based The Porters of Hellsgate Theatre Company. “A lot of questions are brought up and not answered about this three-way relationship and its history. It’s a complex examination of relationships and the roles we play in them. I think it’s a masterpiece. I don’t know why it’s not done more often.”
It was successfully staged in 2008 by London’s Donmar Warehouse, in a production directed by Alan Rickman, who brought it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for another well-received run in 2010. Fox saw that production in New York, and he found the play intriguing enough to put it on his to-do list. Like Rickman, he is using a new translation by Scottish playwright David Greig, which “brings out the feral poetry in Strindberg’s prose,” according to the New York Times.
“Strindberg has a reputation for being dark and demonic, but he can also be very funny,” said Fox. “There are some shocking things said that will make people laugh. Then there is the humor that is part and parcel of a relationship, almost like you’re watching a Seinfeld episode where a couple is arguing. It’s the laughter of recognition. It’s funny in the same way Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is funny. You enjoy the game, the battle of wits.”
While Creditors will surely make some people uncomfortable, “I think it’s going to appeal to young people very much,” he added. “This play stays with you; it gets into your subconscious. Munch’s paintings deal with a lot of the same things as Strindberg’s plays, thematically and emotionally. The expression of anxiety and passion is just riveting.”
In addition, Fox feels the play will provide some balance for the Ensemble season, coming immediately after the enjoyably lightweight The 39 Steps. “Every once in a while,” he said, “I hope people like the experience of being rattled a bit.”
Creditors previews March 29 and 30 and runs March 31-April 15 at the Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.). Call 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.