KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 14, 2000
There’s a frustrating brilliance to the work of Scott Feldsher. He’s a beguiling director, with a wildly imaginative vision. He loves to tantalize and titillate his audience, shock and unnerve them. His work is exciting and unpredictable, but like the kid who taunts or teases or tickles, he always goes just a little too far. By the end, we feel assaulted, or even worse, exhausted. You might say that Feldsher has taken too literally the long-held view that good theater should make an audience uncomfortable.
For the first third of his 90-minute, often-dazzling take on August Strindberg’s “Ghost Sonata,” the audience stands outside the theater in the parking lot. After a 5-minute break for walking into the theater, most of us sit on the floor — on the stage, actually — for the last hour of the piece. Uncomfortable is right… especially when you add that Sledgehammer trademark, assaultive sound and light. Okay, that’s the disagreeable part… beyond that, you could say that Feldsher is back in San Diego with his greatest gifts intact: an ability to startle, shock and create drop-dead gorgeous stage pictures. His high-concept production is mesmerizing…. at least the first 2/3 of it.
Strindberg, the influential Swedish playwright, wrote this 1907 chamber play in sonata form; that is, three unified movements or acts differentiated by tempo, rhythm and melody. The metaphorically dense moral fable considers evil, death, atonement and repentance, as well as image versus substance, and the lies, deceit and superficiality of the bourgeoisie. As Strindberg moved away from his realistic-naturalistic period, he helped usher in Expressionism, a drama of social protest, a reaction against materialism, mechanization and urbanization, rife with abstraction, distortion, exaggeration, fantasy and symbolism. Feldsher has held fast to that presentational style, and it clearly informs this work, with its ghoulish/Kabuki style makeup, its pantomime to voiceover, and its startling mix of languages… English, French, German, Japanese… though not much of the original Swedish in sight. Pea Hicks has composed another haunting backdrop for Feldsher; his deconstruction of a Beethoven sonata is the perfect accompaniment to the piece.
Some consider “The Ghost Sonata” to be the most macabre, obscure and wrathful of Strindberg’s dark works. And that brings us back to Scott Feldsher and his various dramatic obsessions. He has underscored the morbid and vampiric elements; blood once again flows freely on the Sledgehammer stage.
The outdoor segment is undoubtedly the best, and here the lead actors really dazzle: Charlie Riendeau as the Old Man, and Phil Beaumont as the young Student who stumbles upon this house of evil. While they act out their moral seduction, we view, through the binoculars we’ve been given, the various other characters who appear in windows, on balconies, inside and out of the ‘house,’ in this case, St. Cecilia’s, the supposedly haunted former funeral chapel. Once we go inside and sit on the hard floor, we are less amused, though the “ghost supper’ is thrilling. The third segment, staged at a distance in the choir loft, is close to soporific. As usual in the works of Feldsher, the pictures supercede the words, but what you see is often worth the price of admission. If you can just get your cramped limbs to wake up at the end of the event.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.