By Alina Trowbridge, Devoted Cutting Ball Audience Member and Local Playwright
When I attended Cutting Ball’s staged readings of the Strindberg chamber plays, the only Strindberg I’d been exposed to was “Miss Julie” on video with Scarlett Johansen and “Dance of Death” on stage with Helen Mirren and Ian McKellan. Taking “Pelican” with “Miss Julie,” a person could conclude that Strindberg was a raving misogynist. These women play with men, use men to romanticize their own idea of themselves, suck the life out of their children, and take pleasure or take umbrage with willful obliviousness to what their servants’ lives are like. Men, children, and servants seem to be innocent victims or bystanders; when they turn vicious, it’s simply the selfish woman’s just punishment.
Add “Dance of Death” to that picture and the picture changes. See “Pelican” a second time, and you begin to notice that most of the characters, male as well as female, take turns at being monsters. The unfaithful son-in-law in “Pelican” seems to be giving the woman her just punishment, until you understand that he has also brutalized his wife, who has hurt no one. The sickly son is a victim of his mother’s voracious appetite for life; yet he holds in his hands his passport out of the realm of her power, his books. But instead of using his studies to make a different future, he luxuriates in despair, of himself and the future, and brings down the house. His sister is not a monster, but spends a measure of the play repenting her past demonization of her father. As the world comes to an end, she sees the humanity in both her mother and her father. If the final purge is necessary, as the program notes imply, then “Pelican” and “Ghost Sonata” are precursors to writers like Flannery O’Connor: people need a cataclysm to save their souls.
After the vague fears and invisible hauntings of “Pelican,” the visible, embodied spirits and sprites in “Black Glove” come as something of a relief. “Black Glove” is basically a Victorian Christmas play. Mark Locher adds some judicious clutter to his elegant walnut booths, giving them the effect of old-fashioned shadow boxes, filled with carefully arranged memorabilia. Here, the middle class characters are not so much monsters as sinners. The Christmas angel and the Yule-Tomte punish them to show them their failures, but they repair the damage before the play is over and lead each character to their own version of something better. You can’t judge the seemingly bitter, misanthropic Strindberg of “Pelican” and “Ghost Sonata” without taking “Black Glove” into the equation. And who is Strindberg then?