‘Ibsen in Chicago:’ Why?

R. Hamilton Wright and Allen Fitzpatrick (above), Christopher McLinden (below). Photo by Alabastro Photography.

Sigh. Is there anything more depressing than a boring play about a better play?

David Grimm’s Ibsen in Chicago, a gorgeously executed, head-scratchingly pointless piece of theatre now running at Seattle Repertory Theatre, is based on the real-life story of a scrappy bunch of Scandinavian immigrants who premiered Henrik Ibsen’s then-scandalous play Ghosts in Chicago in 1882. Commissioned by the Rep (this is a world premiere) and directed by artistic director Braden Abraham, Ibsen in Chicago inadvertently summed up my feelings about it early on in the play in its first scene. As brick mason and earnest Ibsen fan Henning (Christopher McLinden) shows his high-drama, theatrically pedigreed leading lady Helga (Kirsten Potter) another derelict theatre, he counters her obvious derision of the shabby space with a hopeful, “It’s better than nothing.”

“Is something always better than nothing?” Helga answers. “Sometimes something can be less than nothing. Nothing would be less insulting.”

Yes, Helga. Yes, it would. 

Christopher McLinden, R. Hamilton Wright, Kirsten Potter and Allen Fitzpatrick. Photo by Alabastro Photography

After settling on their disappointing venue, Henning and Helga round out their five-person cast with the mysterious yet headstrong and talented ingénue Elsa (Hannah Ruwe); the sweet, drunk cobbler Per (R. Hamilton Wright); and his less-sweet, more-criminal drinking buddy Pekka (Allen Fitzpatrick). The baby-voiced, slump-shouldered widow Solveig (Annette Toutonghi, working overtime in a truly thankless role) joins as prompter, box office manager and de facto stage manager. There are love stories (kind of), a robbery plotline (sort of) and a play is premiered. The show must go on, darlings!

When Ibsen wrote Ghosts in 1881 no theatre would touch it—the mentions of incest and syphilis were too much for the dramatic sensibilities of the day. Much like the riot myth that surrounds The Rite of Spring (no shade to that great work), that early scandal is now as much a draw as the work itself. In his take on the Ghosts story, Grimm has swirled in interesting ideas about the ever-shifting and arbitrary nature of art, the relative virtues of assimilation and Ibsen’s pivotal turn toward naturalism in the theatre. But we also have cool old tropes like women hating women, intriguing women with mysterious pasts, silly women costing men time and money, women’s suffering as catalyst for men’s emotional growth, and jokes of this caliber:

Per: “Who?”

Pekka: “What are you, an owl?”

This Ibsen looks gorgeous: G.W. (Skip) Mercier’s multi-tiered set (he also did the period-perfect costumes), aided by L.B. Morse’s lighting, transforms the Leo. K Theatre into a crumbling 19th-century venue. The cast is talented, and everyone is working hard to vivify this torpid piece of theatre. But when the lights went down, after 100+ minutes of tepid audience response, I kept thinking: Who is this play for? Theatre makers? Ibsen fans? Old-Seattleites of Scandinavian stock? And what does it do? What does it want? What is it saying about the world—how is it engaging with our current world at all? Of all the new plays out there in the universe, why on earth would you pick this one?

You can almost feel the back-pats that went around the rehearsal table when Elsa, reaching an epiphany about her character in the play, delivers the line, “It’s only a tragedy when a man gets syphilis. Women are expendable.” Then there’s the self-satisfaction when Elsa and Helga battle it out over new and old styles of acting, and when Pekka, a staunch advocate of assimilation, insists, “If everyone stays what they are, being American will never mean anything,” each example pandering to us because we the audience are so clever, from our perch in the future, knowing how the next 130-odd years will pan out.

Theatre about theatre is one of the oldest stories around, as is theatre about theatre history. Paula Vogel’s 2015 play Indecent, about the 1922 production of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance that was shut down for showing a lesbian kiss on Broadway, begins from a place of love, respect and fascination—who were these people who would risk arrest for their art? Grimm shows no such curiosity about the real lives of his characters, nor any inclination to explore his form the way Ibsen did.

“It’s an entirely different approach,” Henning tells his cast after Elsa demonstrates the newfangled style of realistic acting they’re discovering together. It’s a shame that the story of a play so ahead of its time should be told in a play so woefully behind its own.

Ibsen in Chicago runs through March 4