Playwright David Grimm brings the world premiere of his latest work, Ibsen in Chicago, to the Seattle Repertory Theater. Grimm and his talented cast offer the chance to see comedy and realism merge in the lives of new American immigrants.
Ibsen in Chicago follows the trials and tribulations of Northern European immigrants to Chicago who want to put on Ghosts, a play by Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen, who is thought to be the father of modern drama, is known for the realism he writes and the controversy it causes. During the production of Ghosts, the characters struggle to break away from the traditional, mainstream theater of their time and pursue the serious, recognizable, and real drama that is Ghosts. Some of the characters worry that the play’s discussion of STDs and incest will only make such issues more painful. Solveig (played by Annette Toutonghi), a member of Ghosts’ production team responds “it actually feels good to talk about them,” pointing to modern drama’s mission to purge its audience of their own tragedies.
The tension between the old and the new manifests in the love triangle between washed-up actress Helga (played by Kristen Potter), her lover and fellow actor Henning (played by Christopher McLinden), and Elsa (played by Hannah Ruwe), who makes her theater debut in Ghosts. Helga claims to be a star actress, hailing from Copenhagen, who wants to maintain the extravagance she is accustomed to. She is not entirely on board with Ibsen and instead longs for something more familiar and traditional like Hans Christian Andersen. She comes to Chicago with her lover, Henning, who convinces her that Ibsen is the “truth,” not Hans Christian Andersen. Once in Chicago, Elsa enters the picture and advocates for the more simplistic approach to acting that Ibsen plays entail (and which Helga despises). Henning is caught between the two women and the artistic choices they represent.
Potter’s Helga is one of the play’s highlights. She is completely ridiculous and extremely hilarious because of it. She first appears on stage wearing two dead animals draped over her shoulders and is prone to bursts of French. When she applies her acting techniques to a rehearsal of Ghosts, her range of accents (her low voice) comes out and the result is hysterical. Solveig also provides some comical moments. On opening night, she chains the box office to herself so she won’t lose it.
Ibsen in Chicago is chock-full of plays-within-a-play which also lent to the play’s consistent comical moments. The characters perform small bits throughout the play, such as Per’s (a drunken old Norwegian played by R. Hamilton Wright) rendition of Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. He made awkward, stiff, gestures to correspond to the lines he spoke; his Ghosts audition was comically terrible and earned the applause of the entire theater. The stage itself also contributed to the play’s meta-theatrical elements in that on the stage was another, smaller stage on which the character’s performed Ghosts. The responsive audience was a testament to the clever, stage-on-a-stage’s engaging function.
The play ended in true Ibsen-form; there was no happy ending. Grimm stays true to realism and denies the audience of the foreseeable happy-ending. Instead we are left with an unsettling “what happens next?” feeling. Despite this, the audience was laughing the whole time. Although the play entirely takes place within Henning’s theater, it embodies the universal tension between the need to progress and the desire to maintain tradition. Familiarity with Ibsen’s work is not required to enjoy the rich social commentary, comedy, and relatable characters of Ibsen in Chicago.
Ibsen in Chicago by David Grimm, Seattle Repertory Theater, 155 Mercer St, Seattle, WA 98109. February 2, 2018 through March 4, 2018.