As the sound of doors slammed in other rooms and voices were raised in anger I thought about my parents before their divorce. The loud moments behind closed doors where the privacy of their marriage spilled out and was heard by others. I was reminded of a friend who gave a speech at a wedding once, and said how you can never really know what goes on within someone's relationship or marriage. There is so much unseen from the outside. Ivo van Hove's production of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (with an English adaptation by Emily Mann) cracks open the private world of one couple and we watch it spill out before our prying eyes.
Scenes from a Marriage is staged in such a
way that you are intimately close to this couple in various stages of their marriage and relationship. Act one consists of three scenes where Johan and Marianne are at
different ages and places in their marriage. Susannah Flood and Alex Hurt are Johan and Marianne at their youngest and their friends think they have the perfect relationship. Roslyn Ruff and Dallas Roberts play them in the middle years when the stress of children and family commitments seem to weigh on them most. Tina Benko and Arliss Howard play them twenty years into their marriage when things are truly cracking.
The stage is divided into three spaces for each pair of actors to play out their scenes simultaneously with a shared staging area in the middle. Each space has a window or two
looking out on the staging area and if you are seated in the right
place you can also catch a glimpse of another scene taking place in the distance through the window panes.
Characters may encounter each other in the staging area and they react slightly as if a memory or a dream has caught them by surprise. I noticed in particular a strong, albeit brief reaction from Alex Hurt when confronted with Marianne from twenty-years in his future in the staging area.
Fractured and dislocated the distant scenes play out on the periphery and only occasionally catch your eye. Every once in a while as the scene you are watching quiets, loud voices from the other scenes bleed through and clearly you can hear characters say: "I don't care about any of it, " or "It's about love." These hanging phrases from other parts of the characters' lives suggest either memories of fights taken place in the past or they are the ghosts of Christmas yet to come. The audience then moves to the next scene and the actors play it again for the newly arrived audience members.*
Sound design and scenic design are critical to pulling off this
complicated sonic experience as well as the performers being mindful of the rises and falls of their own scenes. Even if you've already seen a scene happening off in the distance through the windows on stage when a sentence
you've already heard gets shouted into the scene you're watching the impact is slightly different.
Most importantly, in each scene in Act one you can hear Johann leave Marianne and that informs and
infuses the scene you're seeing with a very specific melancholy.
In Act two the walls that divided these
scenes and moments in their life disappear and time bleeds together as
all three couples perform together. Partners switch off, dialogue
overlaps, dialogue repeats, and sometimes there is a relay style where one actor begins the conversation and another picks up to finish it.
It's a tremendous exercise in discipline, performance, and the sensation is that time has lost all meaning and in every fight you have the pieces of your younger self are there. You can not live in the present without the past creeping in and informing what you are saying and doing.
The actors are not mimicking each other or even trying to create a sense of Face/Off verisimilitude. It's not the intent. They are each true to their own interpretation of the characters within the scenes that we've seen. We are never quite the same person throughout our lives, are we? We can be more strident when we are young, exhausted when the children have worn us down, resigned after years and years in one relationship. When all these characters are unleashed upon one another it shows the different parts of ourselves arguing in different ways. The actors make different choices, engage in different lines readings, and bring a different energy to their interpretation of their character even if they are interacting with a partner of a different age.
But the tidal wave of voices and actors in Act two is still somehow very controlled. Like a carefully choreographed twirling ballet, the voices spin toward us and away from us and we catch different pieces and different inflections depending on proximity and volume.
I can't say I was overcome emotionally by the production but I was engaged by the performers and the production. I am guilty of over-intellectualizing my reactions and this production fed into my weakness. I enjoyed unfolding the origami layers of the production even if I wasn't moved by the marital travails. I also loved the sonic layering so that time is compressed and we, as the audience, seem to be bouncing around someone's memories, out of order, full of anger, frustration, sadness, and resentment. But there are no answers. No clarity really. Life and relationships are messy.
I could have done without the last two scenes which left me a bit puzzled. The tone and narrative shift for those scenes was jarring. There was an "interpretive dance" sequence to the Windmills of Your Mind and I started to wonder if van Hove was intentionally being obtuse and literal with the music choices (He had already used 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover and Bridge Over Troubled Waters in obvious ways already)--was he trying to say we were spinning in the windmills of the mind of the characters? Because I already thought we were (well I would not have used that phrase) and the goofy dance sequence did nothing more to emphasize that. For a production that otherwise felt carefully structured, I was not sure why opted to use overtly sentimental music in such a literal manner. And the music came and went in other scenes so I did not sense an overall cohesion or a pattern to his deliberate use of it.
I wished we could have gone out on the high note of the six-person "ballet" extravaganza. The voice of Marianne as she delivers her "last"** line to Johan by the three actresses was one of my favorite moments. It was as close to an emotional catharsis as I got.
* The audience was divided up when picking up their tickets so we were assigned which part of the story we would start with. The audience does not "choose their own adventure."
**It was the last line of the ensemble part of the piece. If only it had been the last line of the play.
I received a complimentary ticket to the production.