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Brustein and Rochaix 'Duck' the Pathos In New Production

The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen directed by Francois Rochaix at the Loeb Mainstage through January 17

By Lynn Y. Lee

The Wild Duck is something of an anomaly among Ibsen's dramas. Those who have seen or read such signature pieces as A Doll House or An Enemy of the People will find the most memorable features of those earlier works either absent or grotesquely parodied in this odd, often confounding, yet strangely moving tragicomedy. Mingling, even juxtaposing, humor and pathos, undercutting the concept of the heroic ideal with lacerating irony, and completely devoid of the compelling central figure so key to the other plays, it is also arguably the trickiest one to interpret and perform. The current American Repertory Theater (ART) production, based on Robert Brustein's adaptation and directed by Francois Rochaix, chooses to play up the comic-ironic aspects without jettisoning the ambiguity or the tragedy. It succeeds marvelously in the first aim, somewhat less clearly in the second.

The convoluted plot revolves around the Ekdals, an unremarkable, unpretentious, but reasonably happy lower-middle class family whose domestic peace is about to be shattered by unwanted revelations from the past. (Mark that "unwanted"--it's essential to understanding the play as a whole.) The opening scene, however, is laid not in the Ekdal home but in the rich red study of the wealthy businessman Hakon Werle (Jeremy Geidt), who is hosting a dinner party in honor of his only son, Gregers (Stephen Rowe). We learn that the two men have been estranged for many years, but that old Werle, on the eve of a new marriage with his housekeeper, Mrs. Sorby, is seeking a reconciliation. The son will have none of it, however, particularly after learning of the part his father has played in the life of Gregers' old schoolfriend, Hjalmer Ekdahl (Will LeBow), who is also a guest at the party. Shocked and revolted by his discoveries, Gregers rejects his father's offer and resolves instead to free his old friend from the "lie" on which the latter's happiness is built.

The rest of the play takes place in the Ekdal apartment, a modest but comfortably homelike apartment of which we see only the kitchen and studio. Here Hjalmer rules as king, with a devoted wife (Karen MacDonald) and adoring daughter Hedvig (Emma Roberts) who lavish their care on him and serve him almost slavishly. Here, too, his aged father (Jerome Kilty) can forget his disgrace in alcohol--when he can get it. There is a storeroom which he has converted into a small forest with a few pine trees and some rabbits, where he can relive his days as a great hunter and sportsman. Never has an unseen room been so important to a play, for here also resides the wild duck, shot in the wing and brought up from "the depths of the sea," now tenderly cared for by Hedvig, Hjalmer's 14-year-old daughter. The wild duck (which also remains unseen) becomes the central symbol of the play--for Hedvig, for Hjalmer, and for the Ekdal family as a whole. Into this tranquil little world blunders the well-meaning but clumsy idealist Gregers, whose efforts to clear away the "swamp gases" of deceit and in its place erect a "foundation of truth" only end in destroying it beyond repair.

From the angle taken by this particular adaptation, the acting is first-rate. One does not tend to think of Ibsen as funny; this production favors a style of self-revelation that continually provokes laughter--and not a few hisses. But the acting, like the characterization, is not reduced to pure satire. Each person reveals psychological depths and complexities that figure into the overall ambivalence of the play. Will LeBow as Hjalmer comes across as a theatrical poseur in his own house, painting himself alternately as a self-sacrificing hero, a man of genius, and the loving patriarch of his household. This pose that might seem a trifle overdone without the perspective offered in the first act of a much-diminished Hjalmer in Werle's house: timid, awkward, and ill at ease, he's out of his element when not within his own walls. And when those walls come crashing down after Gregers' intrusion, we see Hjalmer's lordly complacency degenerate into frazzled nerves and shrill paranoia, all deftly portrayed by LeBow. Gregers himself is another such object, on one level fit only for ridicule with his self-righteous obstinacy and his utter blindness to Hjalmer's failings. But again the alternative view from the first act of Gregers both upbraiding and cringing from his father reveals a man deeply resentful of his father's betrayal of his mother, and perhaps also of the force of simple virility that he himself lacks. Stephen Rowe throws a downright spooky cast on to the character's obsession with Hjalmer and the Ekdal family--and the wild duck, its most obvious metaphor. Even down-to-earth, matter-of-fact Gina Ekdal, somewhat heavily played by Karen MacDonald, shows signs of guilt and unease about her past, despite her assertions to the contrary. Hedvig, with her luminous innocence and child's intuition, is the one truly pure and simple character in the ensemble--and is therefore doomed.

There are some fine visual moments that evoke the more serious themes embodied by Hedvig: for example, the transition from the first to second act, when the movable stage representing Werle's study gradually sinks out of sight while the guests are playing (symbolically?) Blindman's Buff; or the moment when the lighting in the Ekdal apartment gradually alters to create an image of a deep pine forest against the backdrop walls. And again, just as powerful is the suggestion of what is not seen--the wild duck, who at intervals is heard faintly quacking, and the room in which she nests.

But ultimately it is the character of Dr. Relling, the Ekdals' cynical, dissipated neighbor, who becomes the dominating symbol of this production. Foil and foe to Gregers, profoundly contemptuous of the latter's lofty "claims of the ideal," convinced that the average man or family (like the Ekdals) needs lies and illusions, not ideals, to survive, the worldweary doctor is played effectively--almost too effectively--by Jack Willis, who cuts a Jack Nicholson-like figure with his sardonic drawl and menacing animus towards Gregers. His is the image that lasts, the voice that crowds out the others and cuts down even the moments of pathos, especially at the end. The Wild Duck may not be a tragedy, but there is a tragedy within it, which fails somehow to emerge from the layers of irony and disillusionment of an

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