A Lot of Pretentious Fretting

By David A. Rosenberg

Sitting through “Autumn Sonata” at Yale Rep is like watching a foreign film for slow learners. Actually, the play, now having its U. S. premiere in New Haven, is taken from the acclaimed flick by the great Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman.

Based on Wendy Weckwerth’s literal translation of the original script, the stage production is directed by Robert Woodruff at a pace that wouldn’t tire a nonagenarian. It’s another example of why some films should be left where they’re found. Bergman’s 1978 drama, which starred the formidable Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, benefited from claustrophobic camera work.

On the wide Yale stage, the sense of intimacy that brought this uncomfortable mother-daughter clash into focus is self-consciously compensated for by a technically complex mixture. Previously recorded film clips and live TV are intertwined with the stage action.

Thus, when the mother talks of watching over her dying lover, Leonardo, we see her doing so in a series of clips. At other times, characters appear both in the flesh and simultaneously as TV images. Actors wear microphones, another reminder that what we’re seeing had origins in an electronic medium.

Peter Nigrini’s production design complements Riccardo Hernandez’s scenery in trying to replicate a film’s ability to use angles, close-ups and long shots. In case we don’t get it, a series of projections (“Eva spoils Charlotte”; “A touch in the night,” etc.) spell out what we’re seeing, like English-language titles.

Charlotte has come for a long-delayed visit to daughter Eva and her husband Viktor. A concert pianist, Charlotte has played with more than keys all her married life, having had many lovers.

Under the guise of filial affection seethes hatred and resentment, which burst forth in a middle-of-the-night confrontation between mother and daughter. Recriminations and tears flow, copiously, in a you-did-this-and-you-didn’t-do-that match-up. 

Adding to Eva’s burdens, she doesn’t really love Viktor, still mourns for the couple’s four-year-old son drowned years ago and tends to her sister, Helena, who contracted a degenerative disease after being rejected by Leonardo. All are examples of Bergman’s themes of existential despair and retribution.

Woodruff distances emotions by placing stagehands visibly on the sides, ready to change furniture or move props between scenes. The actors, emoting like dutiful robots, are but portentous shadows, fretting their 100 intermissionless minutes upon the stage.

As Charlotte, Candy Buckley mixes elegance with guilt, every hair in place, her face a mask, always maintaining composure. Rebecca Henderson pulls out the stops as the accusatory, weepy Eva. Olek Krupa is a stoic Viktor, while Merritt Janson startles as Helena, lolling her head back in her wheelchair, screaming on cue and crawling on the floor. Paul Brantley is the cello-playing Leonardo. He has no lines, appearing only to saw away at his instrument.

Years ago, “The Dove,” a film parody of Bergman’s work, depicted characters at a picnic talking in mock Swedish. A fateful dove flies over, only to poop on those below. We know how the bird felt.

This review appeared in The Hour, Sunday, May 1, 2011.

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