Based on real events, “Ibsen in Chicago” fictionalizes the premiere of Henrik Ibsen’s penetrating 1881 play “Ghosts,” staged by Scandinavian immigrants in Chicago.
A community endures the pains of transformation in David Grimm’s “Ibsen in Chicago,” a new play developed at Seattle Repertory Theatre and now on stage there in its world-premiere production.
Grimm’s sturdy but stodgy work features characters who are eminently aware of their place in history — theme-underlining exclamations about “the future” and a “new frontier” are not uncommon — as they attempt to stage a strange new work of art in a strange new land.
Based on real events, “Ibsen in Chicago” fictionalizes the premiere of Henrik Ibsen’s penetrating 1881 play “Ghosts,” staged by Scandinavian immigrants in Chicago in its original Danish. (In a pragmatic conceit here, the actors speak unaccented English to signify speaking in their native tongue. Halting attempts at English are accented.)
‘Ibsen in Chicago’
By David Grimm. Through Sunday, March 4, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $16-$54 (206-443-2222; seattlerep.org)
In Grimm’s telling, the production is a ragtag patchwork, dreamed up by Ibsen-worshipping Henning (Christopher McLinden) and onetime Danish stage star Helga (Kirsten Potter), and filled out with a cast and crew of amateurs — some with artistic aspirations and some who have nothing better to do.
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Unlike many immigrant stories, there’s little focus on external hostility. Instead, this is a work about the internal turmoil that comes with forging a new identity. There are no non-Scandinavian characters, and while there are bellwethers of bigotry — Danish Henning says a co-worker calls him “Big Dumb Swede” — the conflicts are contained within the play’s makeshift community and its single location: a rundown theater Henning leases to stage “Ghosts.” (Henning: “It’s better than nothing.” Helga: “Nothing would be less insulting.”)
This is an interesting story, both in the particulars of inexperienced artists grappling with the work of a master playwright and the generalities of the Norwegian and Danish experience in Chicago. It’s just not told very interestingly, with a gently comedic tone that simmers on medium-low and characters that rarely stretch beyond archetypes.
Elsa (Hannah Ruwe) is the young, preternaturally gifted actress who’s seemingly been engineered to throw Helga into fits of jealousy. (She does.) Per (R. Hamilton Wright) and Pekka (Allen Fitzpatrick) are the crusty, soused laborers who dream of bigger things, or at least more beer. The distraught Solveig (Annette Toutonghi) might as well have a “Kick Me” sign pinned to her back, with her troubling tendency to pull out her own teeth played purely for comedy.
The entire cast does strong work, particularly Potter, who can get us laughing with her as she lashes her diva’s acid tongue, and at her when she stubbornly refuses to budge from her gesture-heavy Delsarte acting style, an incongruous fit with the new naturalism of Ibsen. At the conclusion of Act 1 of “Ghosts,” she’s supposed to be shattered by a revelation about her son, but she can offer up only stiff signifiers, not actual feeling.
This scene is one of the broadest comic exercises of the entire show, with the intentionally over-the-top mugging by Potter straining the seams of her character’s credulity. It’s also the scene that best encapsulates Grimm’s perspective on the immigrant experience and the difficulty these people face synthesizing the old and the new.
Much of the rest of the play, which runs about 100 minutes with no intermission, gets bogged down in attempts to juice the drama. There’s a robbery subplot, every development of it telegraphed, and the emergence of a half-developed love triangle. Two of the three female characters have a secret, and you can bet Henning won’t be happy about either of them.
Seattle Rep commissioned “Ibsen in Chicago” and developed it in The Other Season, its new-works program. Artistic director Braden Abraham directs, and his familiarity with the material is evident in the show’s expert pacing. An attractive bi-level set by G.W. (Skip) Mercier and some subtly immersive sound design from Sharath Patel contribute to a production so polished that it makes one wish even more for a better play.