Theater Review: Undermain’s The Ghost Sonata Seals It: We Need More Strindberg

Who wouldn’t want to see an otherworldly play that has a haunted house, a parrot-talking mummy, a vampire cook, and lots and lots of ghosts? August Strindberg, one of the world’s greatest modern playwrights, penned that play, The Ghost Sonata, and Undermain Theatre’s production is a beautiful yet incisive take on this strange masterpiece.

Artistic Director Katherine Owens (who helmed Undermain’s brilliant production of Strindberg’s Easter in 2011) claims that The Ghost Sonata is “the most influential play of the 20th Century that no one sees.” For a dramatist whose works have impacted writers from Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, to Eugene Ionesco he is certainly under-produced here in the States. In all of DFW, I can think of only of three Strindberg plays in the last three plus years. That being said, there is a nearly concurrent production of The Ghost Sonata at Pantagleize in Fort Worth, so maybe things are looking up for the overlooked Swede.

Patrick Kelly returns to Undermain to direct after last year’s award-winning The Birthday Party. His vision of Strindberg’s dense and complicated play captures all of the lovely, ethereal qualities that have made it great. He uses a new translation by Paul Walsh that is a bit colloquial at times, but this takes nothing away from the exceptional performances by the entire cast, and the breathtaking look and aesthetic of the play.

John Arnone’s set is an inspired creation of gauzy curtains, blue columns, stained glass, and other design elements that along with Steve Woods’ subtle lighting, Giva Taylor’s luxurious period costumes, Samantha J. Miller’s stunning wig and makeup design all work to emphasize the ghostly nature of the play.

The plot follows a young man (Josh Blann) as his fate becomes entwined with a conniving old man (Blake Hackler) who convinces him to enter a house of dream-like illusions and bizarre inhabitants to save a young woman (Audrey Ahern) from her own hellish family.

Blann’s portrayal of the Student gains power throughout the play, building to an exquisite crescendo. Hackler is thoroughly believable as the octogenarian Hummel, and his stage presence (as always) is captivating. Shannon Kearns-Simmons’ incredible poise and practiced physicality make her Mummy character mesmerizing. Scott Latham as Bengtsson the butler provides some nice comic relief as a counterpoint to all of the dark seriousness around him.

It is a play that really must be experienced to appreciate; however, this provocative chamber-mystery, like a half-remembered dream that you cannot shake, will resonate with you for days after. It’s scary good.