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Theater Review

It's payback time

A husband and wife engage in a power struggle in Strindberg's

October 13, 2009|CHARLES McNULTY | THEATER CRITIC

LA JOLLA — With its beautiful curving coastline, carefree surfer dudes and posh shops, La Jolla makes for a somewhat incongruous locale for encountering August Strindberg's baleful vision of intimate relationships. Ducking into La Jolla Playhouse's Saturday matinee of "Creditors," I confess I was a bit disoriented at the start of this sulfurous study of marital discontent.

This new version of Strindberg's seldom revived work, adapted and directed by Doug Wright (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "I Am My Own Wife"), is often invigorating. Yet it was as if I had just caught a glimpse of Nietzsche, a major intellectual influence on the psychiatrically shaky Swedish playwright, in sunglasses and bathing trunks on the beach.

La Jolla Playhouse, of course, has a long history of producing challenging work. And the truth is that the ferocity of interpersonal conflicts in Strindberg's plays -- the way characters go for each other's jugulars -- are always disquieting. The wrap on the author is that he's a misogynist, but the scarier truth is that he's a misanthrope whose ruthless perceptions about human behavior cannot be dismissed as the disturbed mutterings of a certifiable crank.

"Creditors" is from Strindberg's naturalistic period, when he took inspiration from the French trailblazer Emile Zola and formulated his own approach to a more socially acute, psychologically incisive theater that was in stark opposition to the melodramatic contrivances that had been dominating the 19th century European stage. "The Father" and "Miss Julie" are his best-known plays from this group, but Strindberg felt that "Creditors," a play he labeled a "tragicomedy," more fully realized his desire to distill the drama down to a series of fundamental clashes.

Although "Miss Julie" is considered one of his finest achievements, Strindberg felt that it "still made concessions to romanticism and decor." He described "Creditors," on the other hand, as "a really modern piece, human, amiable, with three sympathetic characters, interesting from one end to the other."

Strindberg was a strange guy, and his definition of amiable was quite different from most people's. "I find the joy of life in its cruel and powerful struggles," he wrote in his preface to "Miss Julie." And these words hold equally true for "Creditors," which for all its cat-and-mouse routines between characters still amounts to a deadly game of emotional manipulation and revenge.

The play is divided into three duologues, capped off by a floridly theatrical ending that foreshadows Strindberg's movement into Expressionism. The setting is a luxurious spa on the Swedish coast, handsomely brought to life with scrubbed wood floors and gray-blue walls by scenic designer Robert Brill.

Adolf (Omar Metwally), a neurotic artist, is convalescing from a mental and physical collapse. He's trying to regain his strength as well as his manhood, which he feels has been severely weakened by his marriage to Tekla (Kathryn Meisle), an older and more experienced woman whose previous marriage inflames his jealousy. Hobbling around with a cane from his wheelchair to his sculpting table, he's desperate to find a solution to his personal and professional self-doubt.

In the play's opening exchange, Gustav (T. Ryder Smith), a professor of "dead languages" with a Mephistophelean goatee, is advising Adolf on how to regain his pride and power. After having persuaded him to switch from painting to sculpture to rescue him from his creative slump, Gustav is now counseling Adolf on his private conduct. He diagnoses that Tekla has assumed the masculine role in their relationship, and that for the sake of his health, Adolf must refuse to sleep with her for a time and exploit every opportunity to put her in her place.

The second colloquy revolves around Adolf's attempt to gain the upper hand with his wife, who can hardly believe some of the outlandish things her husband is proposing. For all the flaws in their marriage, the two enjoy a pleasurable bond, even though it's undeniably undermining Adolf's well-being. (Strindberg's stormy marriage to Siri von Essen, chronicled in his autobiographical novel "A Madman's Defense," suggest real-life parallels.)

The final movement pits Tekla against Gustav in a battle for control of Adolf's soul that culminates in a wild tragic epiphany. Shakespeare's "Othello" and Goethe's "Faust" are both invoked, yet the condensed form and intense psychological scrutiny of "Creditors" identify this work perhaps even more as precursor to the psychodramas of Ingmar Bergman.

Wright's adaptation (from a translation by Anders Cato) has an articulate crispness that is as attractively polished as his staging, which is enhanced by Susan Hilferty's costumes and Japhy Weideman's lighting. The production makes this 95-minute one-act, written in 1888, seem like a much more recent phenomenon.

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