Sunday, September 22, 2013

English Language Premiere of Mr. Bengt's Wife by August Strindberg

Kersti Bryan as Margit and Eric Percival as Mr. Bengt in MR. BENGT'S WIFE.  Photo by Jingxi Zhang.
In Mr. Bengt’s Wife, August Strindberg’s ambivalent attitude toward women, coupled with his view of marriage as an emotional battleground, are in full display.  Sometimes referred to as Strindberg’s response to Ibsen’s The Doll House, this play has only been performed infrequently and never before in English.  Indeed, since 1882, it has been produced just five times – in Stockholm in 1882, Cologne in 1908, Vienna in 1914 (where the Austrian Church demanded that it close after only two performances), Berlin in 1920, and again in Stockholm in 1971.

The current production, very professionally staged off off Broadway by The August Strindberg Repertory Theatre at The Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, is based on the play’s first translation into English (by Malin Tybahl and Laurence Carr) and is directed by Craig Baldwin.  Set in Sweden in 1882, it focuses on the life of Margit (Kersti Bryan), a complex character with sado-masochistic tendencies, given to childlike fantasies of being swept off her feet by a dashing knight on a white charger, both victim and seductress, at times submissive while at other moments nothing but a selfish, self-centered bitch.  A prototype of the independent New Woman, perhaps, and a potential feminist icon.  Bryan plays her role brilliantly, practically stealing the show.

Margit was orphaned as a young girl and sent to a convent where she was abused both physically and emotionally by the Abbess (Vicki Blackenship) but befriended by The Confessor (Matt Hurley).  She is rescued from the convent by Mr. Bengt (Eric Percival), a mounted nobleman, just as she had fantasized she would be and he carries her off to be his wife and live happily ever after with him in his castle.

Unfortunately, Margit’s expectations are not fulfilled.  Mr. Bengt’s crops fail.  He goes bankrupt and is plunged into poverty, losing his estate to The Bailiff (Shawn Fagan), the King of Sweden’s unscrupulous representative and Margit’s childhood friend.  Margit’s marriage collapses and she sues for divorce.

After her divorce, Margit not only is pursued by The Confessor and by The Bailiff but also remains the love of Mr. Bengt’s life.  Or at least we are led to believe all that.  It’s also possible that the entire realistic-surrealistic story we’ve just witnessed on stage was nothing more than Margit’s dream.  You’ll have to decide.

While Kersti Bryan may steal the show as Margit, she is ably supported by all of the other five members of the cast, particularly Matt Hurley as The Confessor, Shawn Fagan as The Bailiff and Vicki Blackenship in the dual roles of The Abbess and The Chief Judge’s Wife. 

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