August Strindberg Repertory Theatre (www.strindberg.org), which was formed in 2012 to illuminate Strindberg’s plays for today’s American audiences, will present the English language premiere of Strindberg’s “Mr. Bengt’s Wife” (1882), directed by Craig Baldwin (Associate Artistic Director of Red Bull Theater) September 13 to 29, 2013 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, NYC, where August Strindberg Rep is the resident company. “Mr. Bengt’s Wife” has been characterized as Strindberg’s answer to Ibsen’s “The Doll’s House.” It utilizes realism, expressionism, melodrama and dreamscape to tell the story of the rebellious Margit, whose quest to become an independent New Woman catapults her from a convent to a castle, where her husband and two lovers vie for her attention.
A new translation by Laurence Carr and Malin Tybahl makes this undiscovered masterpiece accessible to modern American audiences. It has never before been translated into English and has been performed only five times previously: in Stockholm in1882, Cologne in1908, Vienna in 1914 (the Austrian Church demanded that it close after two performances), Berlin in 1920 and most recently, in Stockholm in 1971. The Strindbergian theme of marriage as an emotional battleground is strongly stated and there are absurdist elements foreshadowing such Strindbergian signature works as “The Dream Play.”
The play was originally set during the Protestant Reformation in Sweden, when convents were closing and the church became Lutheran. Its lead character, a high-spirited orphan girl named Margit, is physically and emotionally abused in the convent that has taken her in. Rescued from the convent by a mounted nobleman named Mr. Bengt, she marries this hero expecting a life of fantasies. He idealizes her and disguises his financial perils not to trouble her. But the lie catches up to him; the marriage, like the convent before, begins to feel like a cage to Margit.
together, Bengt is bankrupted by poor crops and the marriage falls apart. Margit applies to the King of Sweden for a divorce and receives one, legally, but is treated like a pariah for leaving her husband. She is visited repeatedly by two men: her confessor from the convent (who may symbolize her conscience) and an old childhood friend, now a bailiff, who comes to comfort and seduce her. The play’s shocking resolution challenges the audience to wonder if the whole story was a dream. The play was a star vehicle for the author’s wife, Siri Von Essen, when it debuted in Stockholm in 1882.
Director Craig Baldwin believes that in this play, Strindberg is grappling with the emergence of a modern woman. Margit breaks out of the confines of convent life and marriage, searching for an existence beyond the accepted roles for women of her time. Strindberg has been accused of misogyny in his portrayal of women. Baldwin points out that Strindberg’s own personal relationships with women “were always love-hate” and “people focus on the hate.” He adds, “But there is tremendous love for the women in his plays; Strindberg finds women fascinating and is trying to write his way into understanding them. This play centers on a woman who refuses to accept her disempowerment. She fights it every step of the way, which is a very modern, even feminist story.”
The play was originally written with a medieval setting, perhaps to distance it from the audiences of the 1880s who might more readily accept it as mythic. The adaptation by Carr and Tybahl sets it back in the 1880s, which relieves the audience from knowing medieval Swedish history to understand the play. Its imagistic and absurdist elements stand up as well in the more modern setting. Director Craig Baldwin points out that the psychological realism of Strindberg’s early works and the surrealism of his later works (e.g. “A Dream Play”) are both evident in this mid-career play. “That kind of variety in one play is exciting to work on,” Baldwin declares. In planning the imagery of the production, he has been influenced by German expressionism (especially silent films), Ingmar Bergman films and the theater of Robert Wilson.
Craig Baldwin is Co-Artistic Director of Red Bull Theater and was associate director of its production of Strindberg’s “Dance of Death” last season. For Red Bull he has also directed readings of three Strindberg plays, “The Stronger,” “Pariah” and Caryl Churchill’s version of “A Dream Play.” He relates that he jumped at the chance to direct this Strindberg world premiere. Baldwin was the first Australian to graduate from the prestigious acting program at The Juilliard School and has gone on to act and direct extensively in NY and across the U.S. in Theatre, Film and Television. As a director, he has worked with Lincoln Center Theater, Roundabout Theater Company, Classic Stage Company, Atlantic Theater Company, Red Bull Theater, The Juilliard School, Stonington Opera House Arts, Atlantic Theater School, SUNY Purchase College, Shakespeare & Company, Origin Theatre Company, Outhouse Theatre Company (where he is Resident Director) and many more. He directed “The More Loving One” by Cory Conley, which won the Best Play award in the 2011 New York Fringe Festival. His own adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” was featured at HERE Arts Center and his adaptation “MacBh” has been workshopped at Classic Stage Company and at Lincoln Center Theater Directors’ Lab. He is co-creator and director of the web series “I [heart] Lucy.” He has assisted directors Sam Gold, Brian Kulick, Jesse Berger and Joseph Hardy, among others.
Co-translator Laurence Carr is a writer, director and educator in upstate New York who teaches Dramatic and Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz. Along with Malin Tybahl, he’s created new English translations of Strindberg’s plays “Mr. Bengt’s Wife” and “Playing With Fire,” among others. Over 20 of Carr’s plays have been produced throughout the U.S.A. His plays have also premiered in Prague and Warsaw. He’s been a guest artist at the University of Linkoping in Sweden, The University of Gdansk in Poland and DAMU in the Czech Republic.
Co-translator Malin Tybahl works in New York City as a film and theater actress, a teacher and translator of Swedish and a drama workshop director. Born in Sweden, she studied at Linkoping University, Marieborg Folkhogskola (Theater Pedagogue Program), then continued her performance studies in NYC at The Neighborhood Playhouse. She has taught Swedish at NYU in the School of Continual and Professional Studies and served as a Program Coordinator of Youth Drama at the YMCA of Greater New York. Ms. Tybahl has appeared in numerous independent feature and short films, screened internationally.
The actors are Kersti Bryan (as Margit), Eric Percival (as Mr. Bengt), Shawn Fagan (as the Bailiff), Matthew Hurley (as the Confessor), Victoria Blankenship (as Chief Judge’s Wife and Abbess) and Samm Todd (as Metta and Witness). Set design is by Angelina Margolis. Lighting design is by Miriam Crowe. Costume design is by Aryeh Lappin.
Coinciding with the run of “Mr. Bengt’s Wife,” August Strindberg Rep will present free stage readings of three plays from Strindberg’s great history cycle, translated by Wendy Weckwerth. (The cycle contains eight or twelve histories, depending on what you read; all were written between 1899 and 1902.)
Mon, Sept 16: “Erik XIV,” directed by Linda Nelson
Mon, Sept. 23: “Gustav Adolf,” directed by Whitney Aronson
Mon, Sept. 30: “Karl XII,” directed by Ivette Dumeng (artistic director of Nylon Fusion Collective).
All these readings are at 7:00 PM in the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street. Admission is free and reservations are not required. August Strindberg Rep will present the entire history cycle as readings over the next two years, three with each of the company’s fully-staged productions. For more info, visit the company’s website, http://www.strindberg.org.
“Mr. Bengt’s Wife” will be performed September 13 to 29, 2013, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM, at Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street (between Bowery and Lafayette, East Village). The show is presented by August Strindberg Repertory Theatre in association with Theater Resources Unlimited. Tickets are $18 general admission; seniors and students $9. To purchase tickets visit www.smarttix.com or call 212-868-4444.