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Ghosts—Modern and Universal—Haunt Drama Theater

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After last season’s popular performances of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House by the fourth-year actors, the Juilliard Drama Division has another Ibsen classic lined up for this month as this year’s graduating class (Group 37) performs Ibsen’s Ghosts, directed by Yevgeny Arye.

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Aside from his wonderful writing, Ibsen—Norway’s most famous playwright—is known for his dramatic commentary on the morality of 19th-century society. This made him a rather controversial (and initially very unsuccessful) figure in Norway, and at 36—fed up with the lack of appreciation of audiences in his homeland—he headed south and lived in Italy and Germany for the next 27 years, writing the bulk of his dramatic works abroad. A Doll’s House, his first work to gain real international attention, in 1879, was followed directly by his next major work, Ghosts, written in 1881 and first performed the following year by a Danish touring company in Chicago. For Ghosts, Ibsen once again chose provocative themes, including infidelity, incest, sexually transmitted disease, euthanasia, and illegitimacy, to drive his play. In fact, Ghosts was written as a response to the public outrage created by A Doll’s House (epitomized by Nora’s iconic door slam)—which, needless to say, did not bring him closer to the mainstream in the eyes of his contemporaries.

The plot of Ghosts centers around the Alving family. Mrs. Helen Alving (played in Juilliard’s production by Meg Fee) is the widow of Captain Alving, who was perceived as a highly respectable man in their small Norwegian community but was, in reality, a debauched man, and a terrible husband who cheated on his wife constantly and made her life a living hell. Trapped in the social conventions of her time (in stark contrast to the heroine of A Doll’s House), Mrs. Alving is persuaded through the coaxing of Reverend Manders (played by Rob Thompson) to stay with her husband, eventually yielding tragic results by the end of the play. In an attempt to protect their son Oswald (Finn Wittrock) from being tainted by association with his father, Mrs. Alving hides the truth from him and sends him away to boarding school. At the start of the play, she is about to dedicate an orphanage in the captain’s honor, to preserve the façade that she has created regarding her husband as well as using up the tainted money that Oswald would have inherited. Oswald, who had been living in Paris, returns home and reveals that he is dying of congenital syphilis (which he has, ironically, inherited from his father), and that he is in love with the family’s maid, Regina Engstrand (Monica Raymund), presumed to be the illegitimate child of Mrs. Alving’s late maid, Johanna, and the local carpenter, Jakkob Engstrand (Dion Mucciacito). Oswald plans to marry Regina, and hopes that she will nurse him during his illness. From this point on, through a series of dark twists, turns, and revelations, we are led to ask ourselves: Can we indeed put our ghosts to rest? Can we escape the sins of our fathers? Says Raymund, “The story lies in the complexities of this small family and the dysfunctional ‘stuff’ that happens … between mother and son, and with close relations.”

At the start of the play, she is about to dedicate an orphanage in the captain’s honor, to preserve the façade that she has created regarding her husband as well as using up the tainted money that Oswald would have inherited. Oswald, who had been living in Paris, returns home and reveals that he is dying of congenital syphilis (which he has, ironically, inherited from his father), and that he is in love with the family’s maid, Regina Engstrand (Monica Raymund), presumed to be the illegitimate child of Mrs. Alving’s late maid, Johanna, and the local carpenter, Jakkob Engstrand (Dion Mucciacito). Oswald plans to marry Regina, and hopes that she will nurse him during his illness. From this point on, through a series of dark twists, turns, and revelations, we are led to ask ourselves: Can we indeed put our ghosts to rest? Can we escape the sins of our fathers? Says Raymund, “The story lies in the complexities of this small family and the dysfunctional ‘stuff’ that happens … between mother and son, and with close relations.”

The cast will be performing playwright Lanford Wilson’s 2001 translation of the text. Through such a recent and utterly American translation, we are reminded that Ibsen’s themes are still truly universal and pertinent to present-day life. For Mucciacito—who has done a great deal of outreach in South Africa and other places through projects initiated by him and other students here at Juilliard, this is especially true; he points out that the issue of sexually transmitted diseases will probably resonate most. Ghosts is often cited as being particularly relevant in relation to the AIDS crisis of the last 25 years. As Arye observes, “This theme of how the past, how life influences our children—I think it’s very modern. And I’m not talking only about sickness; I’m talking about spiritual life, too, about responsibility to the future.

“I never liked Ibsen,” confesses Arye, “and I never did it in the theater—and when Juilliard suggested this play to me, I was in shock. Then, when I read the play, I fell in love with it … Ibsen is a great master of plays. It’s not just a play; it’s good literature.”

For the fourth-year actors involved, anticipation about this production runs high. “What excites me is the way the director is approaching the text,” says Mucciacito. “This is not your usual ‘talking heads’ version of Ibsen. The director has told us, ‘We are trying to brush the dust off the text and bring it alive in a way that makes sense today.’”

Arye, an internationally renowned director, is artistic director of the Gesher Theater in Israel. Founded by Arye in 1991, the Gesher (“bridge” in Hebrew) is a company of Russian stage stars who emigrated to Israel with Arye, who had been a famous director in Moscow. Over the last 16 years, the Gesher Theater has garnered praise for its bold, compelling, and visceral productions integrating dance, music, and drama, and for the rare distinction of being a bilingual company, performing plays in Russian and Hebrew. Under Arye’s artistic guidance, the Gesher has traveled the world and received numerous awards from the world’s most prestigious theater festivals.

For the fourth-year actors, working with Arye means being held to the highest standards for professionalism and creativity. “He works extremely fast,” says Raymund, “which means you always have to be prepared and ready to deliver. And he likes to just try out new ideas and then change it up, so the actor has to be extremely adaptable to his direction.” Says Arye of his process: “To get a good result, you have, in a way, to fight with the author. Not to change his position or his conception, but there has to be some dialogue between us and Ibsen.”

But those high standards create an atmosphere where it is safe to experiment. “I feel like anything is possible,” says Mucciacito—“like I can play things extremely over the top and he will encourage me to go further. It feels like nothing is sacred in this process—in a good way. The work can be hilarious, and nasty at the same time. It is a very visceral experience … a very spontaneous and organic process.”

This production of Ghosts promises to be deeply personal, and unlike any you’ve ever seen before—providing an experience as electric for the audience as for the actors.

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