by Patrick Thomas
The comedian Steven Wright once quipped, "You can't have everything. Where would you put it?" It's a quote I keep in mind to remind myself that—despite decades of theatergoing, there are still many, many, many shows I have never seen, including multitudes that are considered classics. So I am always filled with great anticipation and excitement when I take my seat and the lights dim in the moments before a classic play I have never seen is about to begin.
So it was with one of August Strindberg's most notable plays, Creditors, which opened Thursday night at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre in a translation by David Greig. Being one of the giants of drama, cited as an influence by Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee, it's a little embarrassing to admit I had neither seen nor read any of Strindberg's work.
The play itself is a marvel—like embarking down a sunny path through a verdant glade, only to have the way turn dark and narrow, and you hear the guttural cries and shrieks of unseen beasts as you venture deeper and deeper into the woods. But as directed by Barbara Damashek and performed by a cast of three offering performances that feel out-of-balance from each other, this Creditors failed to repay the debt I owe to Strindberg for ignoring his work for so long.
Creditors takes place in a seaside hotel, where Adolph (Joseph Patrick O'Malley), an artist, has been on holiday with his wife Tekla (Rebecca Dines). Tekla, however, has been away for several days, and Adolph has been enjoying the company of a new friend, Gustav (Jonathan Rhys Williams). Though Adolph has fallen hard for Gustav (in a purely platonic way), Gustav spends most of his time pouring poison in Adolph's ear, convincing him to give up painting and take up sculpture instead, and claiming that Tekla never loved him. "That woman," he says, "is consuming you like a savage." He tells Adolph he is under "the mesmerizing power of a skirt," and that Tekla is nothing more than "a fat boy with overdeveloped breasts." At every turn, Gustav undercuts Adolph's confidence, even as Adolph praises Gustav for his support, crediting him for giving him the "push" he needed to extricate himself from the trap of trivializing his own work.
Throughout this, O'Malley plays Adolph with a rictus of a grin pasted on his face, like a masochist relishing in the lash. It seems as though we are to pity Adolph for his impotence in the face of Gustav's sinister machinations, but it comes across as a one-note interpretation, and pulls focus from Williams's far more nuanced and interesting portrayal of Gustav. His voice fills the intimate space of the Aurora like a brass instrument, resounding high, bright and clear, insisting to be heard, pushing itself on us rather like Gustav forces his will upon Adolph and Tekla—almost vengeful in its force. That vengeance will become horrifyingly clear by the time Strindberg takes us to his half-creepy, half-crafty denouement.
When Tekla reappears, halfway through Creditors, actress Dines finds herself caught between the overwrought monotony of O'Malley's performance and the layered, compelling work of Williams. The end result is an ensemble that feels askew from each other—and not because each character is pursuing different ends.
Angrette McCloskey's set is rather bland, lacking a sense of menace or unease that would seem in keeping with Strindberg's text. Some of the upstage elements are framed with bright blue tubular lights whose purpose was lost on me, though their effect at the top of the show is startling and lovely.
If, like me, you had never enjoyed the wonders of Strindberg, perhaps it would be best to wait just a little while longer before baptizing yourself in the works of Sweden's master dramatist.
Creditors, through February 24, 2019, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$70. Tickets and additional information are available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.