‘Queen Kristina’ Tells Story of Neurotic and Complex Woman in Sweden

Strindberg’s “Kristina” (1903) is the unacknowledged basis for the Garbo film “Queen Christina.” In this skillful study of a neurotic and complex woman, Strindberg reveals the power of his dramatic conceptions and the mastery he had acquired of his craft. The play was the last of a series of Strindberg’s later historical dramas that are among the most powerful plays of the kind produced in modern times. August Strindberg Repertory Theatre will present the masterpiece at the Gene Frankel Theatre March 13 to 29 translated from the Swedish by Wendy Weckwerth, directed by Whitney Aronson.

The play centers on the scandals leading up to Kristina’s abdication of the throne of Sweden in 1654, which was a product of chiefly two causes: accusations that she had stolen or squandered a five million daler tribute from the Peace of Westphalia and rumors of her impending conversion to Roman Catholicism. In the events leading up to her abdication, she is shown struggling against her old lovers and mentors, putting on ballets to distract from her financial misconduct, fighting against her feminine nature and succumbing to it. Her realistic, even naturalistic portrayal in the play cast Strindberg as revisionist historian of sorts: prior histories of Swedish monarchs all made them out to be noble, despite their flaws. For “telling it as it is,” Strindberg is still hated by the Swedish right wing.

Kristina Magnus
Jacob Troy as Magnus De La Gardie (a jilted lover), Ivette Dumeng as Kristina. Photo by Rosalie Baijer.

The Kristina of history is a complex and mystifying figure. Daughter of Gustav Adolph (Gustav the Great), she was reared as a man and fought a lifelong struggle to prove that a woman could rule as a king. She antagonized her domestic power base by insisting on a negotiated settlement to the Thirty Years War and aspired to the arts of peace: philosophy, religion and science (as minimal as it was in her time). An edified mind, educated far beyond her surroundings, she made great strides in bringing Sweden into the Enlightenment. She even brought Descartes to Sweden to be her personal tutor. But to stay in power, she gave out titles willy-nilly in a kingdom strapped by decades of war, so she basically bankrupted it.

From an early age, she was entranced by Catholicism, which brought her into conflict with the Lutheran establishment. After her abdication, she converted to the Church of Rome and moved there, installing her cousin, Charles Gustav, as King, and stripping her palace of its treasures and furnishings. She lived in debt for the rest of her days, in and out of favor with the Pope, making herself a patron to the arts and aspiring to the throne of Naples. Her politics and rebellious spirit persisted long after her abdication. In 1686, she defended the Hugenots of France in an indignant letter to the French ambassador. The same year, she made Pope Clement X prohibit the custom of chasing Jews through the streets during the carnival, proclaiming the Jews of the city to be under her personal protection.

Bright and charismatic, Kristina reigned surrounded by a sea of men trying to tell her what to do. Contrary by nature, she would willfully defy the advice of her mentors, particularly Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, her father’s chief adviser. Throughout her life, she refused to wear women’s shoes, wore a sword, walked like a man and overthrew conventions of what was expected of a woman. Over the course of the play, she is discovering who she is and putting on a lot of masks.

Strindberg wrote in his Open Letters to the Intimate Theater (1907 ff.), “Christina was so genuine a woman that she was a woman hater. In her memoirs she says frankly that women should never be permitted to rule. That she did not want to get married I think natural, and that she who had played with love was caught in her own net, is, of course, highly dramatic.”

In putting his interpretation into dramatic form, he applied the “naturalistic” techniques of dialogue, dramatic structure, motivation and characterization that he had used in “Miss Julie” (1888) and “Creditors” (1888).

Kristina Axel
Ivette Dumeng as Kristina, Al Foote III as Chamberlain Axel Oxenstierna. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

This production makes no effort to evoke the famous Garbo film, which is one of the great costume dramas of Hollywood’s early sound films and hinges on a largely made-up romance between Kristina and the Spanish envoy, Antonio Pimentel de Prado. The new adaptation by Wendy Weckworth, premiering here, renders the play into fairly contemporary diction. The production uses elements of the 1920’s to simulate the 1600’s (Kristina wore pants, which were first adopted by women in the 20’s, and both periods were postwar epochs). Scenery will rely largely on projected backgrounds.

The play features Ivette Dumeng as Kristina, with Sergio Castillo as Holm (a tailor), Martin Boersma as Steinberg (a minister), Brent Shultz asClaes Tott (a lover of the Queen), Amy Fulgham as Maria Eleanora (the Queen Mother), Jacob Troy as Magnus De La Gardie (a jilted lover), Al Foote III as Chamberlain Axel Oxenstierna, Reginald Wilson as Pimentelli (the Spanish envoy), Steve Shoup as Allerts (a merchant), Eric C. Bailey as Tavern Keeper, Michael Cirelli as Farmer and Christine Nyland as Ebba Spare (the queen’s friend, supposed widely to be her lesbian lover). Lighting design is by Miriam Crowe. Projection and graphic design are by Mikhail Poloskin. Costume design is by Jessa-Raye Court. Sound design is by Andy Evan Cohen.

Wendy Weckwerth (translation) is a dramaturg, editor, and writer currently based in Minneapolis. She is a translator of Strindberg’s history plays, including “Erik XIV,” “Gustav Adolf,” “Karl XII,” and “Kristina.” The first three were presented by August Strindberg Rep as staged readings in 2013. Her translation of Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata” screenplay was the basis for Robert Woodruff’s stage adaptation (Yale Rep, 2011). As the dramaturg for Voice & Vision Theatre (NYC) and in freelance capacities at The Playwrights’ Center (Minneapolis) and elsewhere, she has an ongoing commitment to new-play dramaturgy and advocacy for contemporary performance. She has been on the faculties of Dartmouth, Colby, and Mount Holyoke Colleges and joined Bard College’s Language & Thinking Program faculty in 2010. She holds a DFA and MFA from Yale School of Drama and a BA from Vassar.

Whitney Gail Aronson (Director) staged August Strindberg Repertory Theatre’s “Dance of Death” and its stage reading of “Gustav Adolf.” She holds an MFA in Directing from The New School for Drama.

Kristina portrait
Ivette Dumeng as Kristina. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Ivette Dumeng (Kristina) is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of NyLon Fusion Theatre Company (www.nylonfusioncollective.org). Last fall, she appeared as Julie in August Strindberg Rep’s innovative adaptation of “Miss Julie,” which was set in the Antebellum South. Her theater credits include “The Monkey Show” by John P. Shanley (LABrynth Theatre) and “The Big Funk” (NyLon Fusion). She has also appeared at 59E59, Edinburgh Fringe and Teatro Latea. Her commercials include McDonalds, Verizon and KFC. Her print campaigns include Goldman Sachs and Zappos. She has been featured in “O” and Vogue Magazines.

August Strindberg Repertory Theatre (www.strindberg.org), under the direction of Robert Greer, is committed to production of the author’s best, and less often performed, plays in new translations and interpretations that illuminate the plays for today’s American audience. The company made an auspicious debut in 2012 with Strindberg’s autobiographical play “Playing With Fire,” adapted by the late Leslie Lee. The play was re-set from a Swedish Victorian summer house to the black community of Oak Ridge, on Martha’s Vineyard, in the 1920s. That production opened at The New School Theatre and expanded to an Off-Broadway production at the Gene Frankel Theatre, the company’s present home. It received three Audelco nominations: Best Revival, Best Ensemble and Best Costume Design. Cast members from “Playing With Fire” returned to play their corresponding roles in an equally autobiographical play, “Easter,” the next season. “Easter” was adapted from a Swedish coastal town in 1901 to Harlem in 1958. Both productions were directed by Robert Greer.

The company presented a double-bill of Strindberg’s “Casper’s Fat Tuesday” and “The Stronger” in October, 2012 (in a run that was overshadowed by Hurricane Sandy). “Mr. Bengt’s Wife,” Strindberg’s answer to Ibsen’s “The Doll’s House,” was presented in September 2013. In Spring, 2014 the company presented “To Damascus, Part 1,” adapted to Harlem, 1962. Last fall, the company presented an adaptation of “Miss Julie” set in the Antebellum South. August Strindberg Rep is the resident company at the Gene Frankel Theatre.

August Strindberg Repertory Theatre will present “Kristina” from March 6 to 29 at Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street., NYC. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM and matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM. There are preview performances on March 13 and 14. Tickets are $18 general admission,for seniors and students $12 and For student groups $9. The box office SMARTTIX number is 212-868-4444. Tickets can be purchased online at www.smarttix.com. The company’s website, where you can find more information about the play, is www.strindberg.org. The running time is two hours (including intermission).

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.