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LunaSea Theatre presents Ghosts
Ghosts by playwright Henrik Ibsen
Presented by LunaSea Theatre
Directed by Mary-Colin Chisholm
The Local Council of Women House, Halifax
Runs until November 10th

Review by Martin Wallace

LunaSea Theatre’s latest production is a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, held at the George Wright mansion on Inglis Street, now home to the Women’s Council of Halifax. It’s a provocative staging—Ghosts is an emotionally arduous play, full of pain and despair, and its intensity is only increased by the intimacy of the setting. Patrons are seated in the living room of the Wright mansion, mere feet from the action—less spectators than uncomfortable bystanders. The overall effect is of fierce engagement—this is a production for those who want to experience the emotions portrayed by the actors, not simply enjoy their expression from a position of safe detachment.  (On the night I attended I saw people crying during the wrenching climax.)

The widow Helene Alving (Martha Irving) is establishing an orphanage in honour of her late husband, Captain Alving. She meets with Pastor Manders (Brian Heighton), her spiritual advisor, on the night before its opening to discuss the inaugural ceremony. Also present in the Alving house are her son, Oswald (Jeff Schwager), a painter, who has spent most of his life away from the estate and the influence of his father, and Regina Engstrand (Naomi-Joy Blackhall-Butler), Mrs. Alving’s maid. An occasional visitor, and important part of the play’s tragic events, is Jacob Engstrand (Lee J. Campbell), a local carpenter and Regina’s father.    

LunaSea Theatre’s mandate is to “give voice to women’s stories,” and Ghosts has historically been seen as a “woman’s perspective” play, with its strong female lead and sensitivity to women’s experience. While written in 1881, the play’s comments on the rights of women retain relevancy in current debates and serve as a rejoinder to those who think that feminism didn’t exist prior to 1960. Still, Ghosts is less about women’s rights, than about—in both the ancient and current sense—patriarchy, about how “the sins of the fathers” are visited upon us all. (While Captain Alving is neither alive nor present in the play, his influence haunts it—each of its many tragedies a direct result of his actions.)  “Ghosts,” Mrs. Alving tells us, are “all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs” that continue to trouble and sway us.

The performances in the LunaSea production are uniformly excellent, although I particularly enjoyed Martha Irving, in the demanding lead role, and Brian Heighton, with all moralistic disdain and gullibility as Pastor Manders. (I like the choice to avoid delivering Manders’ pronouncements with thunderous intensity; it makes his moralism seem less punitive than fussy, lending credibility to both his naiveté and to the implied romantic history between him and Helene Alving.)

There are a couple of problems created by the company’s (perhaps unnecessary?) decision to “[shift] Ibsen’s Scandinavian classic to Edwardian era Halifax.” While Lee J. Campbell’s performance is fully realized, rich, and thoroughly enjoyable, the decision to have Jacob Engstrand played as a “finger-to-cap” lower class English rapscallion gives the character a buffoonish cast that underemphasizes his ‘Iagoistic nature.

Also, the decision to reimagine Regina Engstrand as African-Canadian is problematic; adding the dimension of race to a play that deals so strongly and openly with issues of class and gender is an admirable move, but other than by the alteration of  a few lines to mention interaction between “the races,” the new implications are not dealt with. (That the actress, Naomi-Joy Blackhall-Butler, who expertly plays Regina is African-Canadian is not the issue here—African-Canadian actors should not be limited to “Black roles” and there’s no real reason why Blackhall-Butler couldn’t just have easily played  Mrs. Alving. However, given the revelations surrounding Regina, identifying the character specifically as African-Canadian produces implications about all of the characters motivations and actions that Ibsen’s original play doesn’t sustain without substantial rewriting.)  

Given the small size and intimate nature of the venue, seating for these performances is limited (about 30), but you have until the 10th to catch it. I don’t know if LunaSea or any other theatre company is going to put on any more productions at the Wright mansion, but I hope so. It’s yet another option in Halifax’s richly varied theatre scene.

Oh, and incidentally, Ghosts was regarded as depraved and immoral during its first performances. If you want to read some of the most fined tuned and hilarious vitriol ever put on paper (no one does exquisite outrage quite like the English upper-class literary press), see if you can seek out some of the initial English reviews. I close with a few of the best: 
"Lugubrious diagnosis of sordid impropriety....Characters are prigs, pedants and profligates....Morbid caricatures.... Maunderings of nookshotten Norwegians" – Black and White
"Ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste, in exact proportion to their nastiness" – Sporting and Dramatic News
"Ibsen's positively abominable play entitled Ghosts....An open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly....Gross, almost putrid indecorum....Literary carrion.... Crapulous stuff" – Daily Telegraph.

Remaining Performances

Sunday, Nov. 3 ~ 2pm
Sunday, Nov.  3 ~ 8pm (PWYC)
Tuesday, Nov.  5 ~ 8pm
Wednesday, Nov. 6 ~ 8pm
Thursday, Nov. 7 ~ 8pm
Friday, Nov. 8 ~ 8pm
Saturday, Nov. 9 ~ 8pm
Sunday, Nov. 10 ~ 2pm

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