Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Enchantment

Dude can rock a tux
I went to see The Enchantment. My actor pal Matt DeCapua played a lady-killing sexyman, although the literal killing is done by the lady herself.

I was intrigued by the provenance of the play which was written by a 19th-century Swedish woman, Victoria Bennedictsson, who slit her own throat and left the play unfinished.

But I was nervous because one of the selling points of the play is its connection to two Scandinavian plays written by contemporaries of Bennedictsson, Hedda Gabler by Ibsen and Miss Julie by Strindberg. As I've mentioned on this blog, I'm not a big fan of Scandinavian plays - and you can throw Chekov in there too even though as a Russian he's not technically qualified.

I don't like Hedda Gabler and I hate the misogynistic Miss Julie. I thought a piece in Ms. Magazine about a Neil LaBute adaptation of Miss Julie, from a few years ago, has a perfect synopsis of the play:
On a midsummer night at Julie’s father’s estate, the patriarch is away and thus the servants are at play at an offstage party in the barn. Miss Julie takes a break from dancing with her servants, which is scandal enough, to flirt with Jean and have a few drinks in the kitchen. An overt display of sexuality and mutual seduction culminates in sex, after which Jean proposes they run away together and open a hotel. When Julie says she wants to go with him but cannot supply him with the seed money (the money is all her father’s, obviously), Jean turns cold, calling her a whore... 
And then he convinces her to kill herself.
Miss Julie is considered a classic and is produced again and again in spite of its extreme misogyny and  unbelievable ending.

The Enchantment is mainly a long suicide note. The author killed herself over a man who rejected her. The play indicates that the man decides, too late, to make the protagonist of the play his wife, which is not only unbelievable in the context of what we've been told about the character in the rest of the play, but also is so obviously an example of a "you'll be sorry when I'm gone" wish fulfillment.

If Bennedictsson wrote the play and then killed herself in a spectacularly gruesome way in order to be remembered post-mortem, she certainly did succeed: her play is being produced internationally, in addition to her (possible) influence on Ibsen and Strindberg. Meanwhile, the man whom Bennedictsson allegedly killed herself over, George Brandes, is, I'm guessing, mostly unknown outside of Denmark.

I suspect the translater/adapter Lexen was reluctant to make changes to the original work in order to retain the purity of the author's intent - but a suicide note is not the best original source for a contemporary play.

And the set for this production was wrong in that a small stage was made even smaller by a doorway which partitioned off a quarter of the stage to indicate a garden, which was barely used - not enough to warrant cramping up the stage that way, anyway.

But that's nothing compared to the problems of the script. The Village Voice review of this production of The Enchantment was pretty harsh, especially in reference to the male actors, but I thought that was unfair. The review notes:
Ironically, in a piece about the female gaze, the men seem to have been chosen for their beauty alone — it might be a power reversal, but it’s not quite the one we’re looking for.
But I believe the critic is blaming the casting and performances for what is really a problem with the playwright's handling of the male characters. Benedictsson uses male characters the way many playwrights even up to the present time use female characters - for support, for exposition and for objects of desire. Benedictsson's male characters are the suitor and the brother and the sexyman - mirror images of the thankless roles female actors complain about all the time. 

And about the much-touted Swedish "realism" - I doubt that these plays were especially realistic in staging or content even when they were first written. The ending of Miss Julie is especially absurd - I seriously doubt many Swedish women were so easily talked into killing themselves for having extra-marital sex, especially before any pregnancy was discovered.

Maybe it's because nowadays the realism is so extreme that playwrights like Annie Baker (I'm actually not sure if any other playwrights are imitating her in this) include long paint-drying silences which do a perfect imitation of life, but there's nothing realistic about the opening scene of The Enchantment, in which the sexyman strides in and immediately starts in on the seduction patter. He's written much too chatty and obvious for the irresistible Frenchmen he's supposed to be.

But maybe compared to the artifice that came before in Swedish theater, this is what passes for slice of life.

In any case, I think there is some worthwhile material in this play, but it needs some work to make it a satisfying piece de theatre.

One more observation I have - the play seems to be saying that "free love" is dangerous in its impact on some people. But the play does not actually make the case. Because, would the pain experienced by Louise in being rejected by Alland be any better if instead of declaring himself unbound to any one woman, he just up and married someone else? It seems to me that would be even worse. I suspect far more people have killed themselves because of rejection in favor of a single real rival than dozens of potential rivals. 

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