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Beate Hein Bennett

Love and Death in Icy Climes

Ivette Dumeng as the Wife, Bryan Hamilton as the Farm Hand, in "Guilty"

September 5 – 17
Theater for the New City (Community Theatre), 155 First Avenue
Presented by The August Strindberg Repertory Company
Sept. 5 & 11 @ 9 PM, Sept. 16 & 17 @ 2 PM, Sept. 17 @ 8 PM
General admission: $15
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, September 16, 2017

A trial transcript from an 1837 criminal case, “the nastiest in Icelandic history,” according to the presiding judge at the time, is the source material for Icelandic playwright Hrafnhildur Hagalin Gudmundsdottir’s play “Guilty.” Translated into English by Salka Gudmundsdottir, the play presents the audience with a grim tale of fatal attraction in the remote desolate moors of the northern coast of Iceland where fog, sea, and frost merge into an implacable darkness that permeates the soul. The dramatic structure merges a courtroom drama with a memory play using multiple points of view, a bit like “Rashomon,” through which the act of the crime is gradually revealed while our perceptions of the character motivations and the consequences to them are undergoing a blurring and shifting under the presiding judge’s questioning.

Ivette Dumeng as the Wife

A crime of passion is at the center of the play that involves four characters living on a remote subsistence farm: a wife, a husband, a thirteen year old daughter, and the hired hand. The wife, Jorunn, discovers the force of sexual attraction through her torturous love affair with the hired hand, Fridfinnur, a dark figure. The impotent husband, Jon, knows and quietly accepts this affair of many years. One day, the hired hand, who minds the sheep and catches and kills birds with his bare hands by cracking their wings, lures the young girl Gudrun to the moor to herd the sheep with him. He rapes her; she returns home, bloodied and terrified, only to be repudiated by her mother. The mother and the hired hand are brought to court by the father. Fridfinnur is imprisoned while Jorunn is condemned to three times twenty-seven lashes to be executed before her daughter’s eyes.

Bryan Hamilton as the Farm Hand.

The details of this tale are gradually revealed through the questioning of the Judge who functions as the Narrator while the other characters testify, narrate, remember, deny, and undergo the emotional trauma by partially reenacting or reimagining events of their entanglements. The language vacillates between courtroom matter-of-fact statements and poetic reflections that evoke the Icelandic seascape and the psychic landscape of passion. The Narrator/Judge, now old, re-visits this case over which he had presided as a young man, owns the poetic reflections and closes the play with a beautiful, rather lengthy, elegy. Throughout the play, he utters a repeated phrase (with minor variations): “Everything merges with nature, men, sheep, birds…” The dramatic irony of the play is that the characters remain largely isolated from one another, physically on stage, as well as psychologically, despite their terrible entanglement.

Sean Hoagland as the Husband, Ivette Dumeng as his Wife. Photo by Kamoier Williams.

The director Robert Greer, Artistic Director of The Strindberg Repertory Company, created a piece of chamber drama in which each character had a distinct voice analogous to a quartet; voice and movements remained controlled. Ivette Dumeng captured the egotistical sensuality of Jorunn which blinded her to her daughter’s trauma; yet her big expressive eyes are full of pain and horror as she repeatedly blurts out “that day—don’t mention that day.” The farmhand Fridfinnur, played by Bryan Hamilton like a mix of Caliban and Strindberg’s Jan, crouching, squinty-eyed, and rough of voice-- “weary of the world,” as he says, is brutish nature incarnate; to him the sexual act with a woman is analogous to cracking the wings of a bird by pressing them back and with one twist killing it—in short, for him sex and death belong to the same category of power over life. The two characters who are victims in this brutish dance of death are Jon, the farmer, played by Sean Hoagland with a gentle intelligence that is powerless in the face of deadly passion. Gudrun, the girl, is played by Bailey Newman with touching innocence and projecting a heart-breaking loneliness. According to the Judge/Narrator nobody knows what became of her, but “they say ghosts will walk for nine generations if they leave business unsettled.”

Mary Tierney as the Judge.

Veteran actress Mary Tierney is cast as the Judge/Narrator. She presides at a small desk, downstage, with back to the audience, and reads her lines as though from a transcript; this works for most of the play. However, the playwright has given that character the task to conclude “the proceedings” with a lengthy elegy that contains emotional content but in a controlled lyrical form to be delivered to the audience as a rhetorical commentary. Mary Tierney, facing the audience for the first time, read those lines from a large scripted flip note-book deposited on the desk instead of delivering them freely, but she over-compensated with exaggerated emotionality that interfered with intelligibility of the lines.

Bailey Newman as the Daughter.

T. Michael Culhane’s unobtrusive but evocative lighting design makes use of blue and white light to give the feeling of the bleak northern light in winter; shadow isolates the characters from each other and gives a sense of emergent memory. Jessa-Raye Court provided lovely simple costumes for the women appropriate to period and social setting—the girl wore lace edged bloomers that peaked out from under her dress to emphasize her adolescent stage.

This fine production of “Guilty,” a United States premiere, was presented as part of TNC’s 8th annual “Dream Up” Festival. I am sorry that it had such a limited run (for now?) and hope that it may be revived. If one wants to see foreign works in simple unpretentious but competent productions, such NYC venues as TNC or H.E.R.E or other off-off and further off places must be sought out and supported, as well as the artists and companies, together with directors (who read) and translators who ferret out unknown work; they all deserve our thanks and active support. That is the duty of a city and its citizens who pride themselves of being “the cultural center of the World” (no less!).


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