Cutting Ball starts Strindberg cycle with panache

Courtesy PhotoVivid portrayal: James Carpenter is mesmerizing in Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Strindberg’s “The Ghost Sonata.”

“It’s all a little complicated,” says the Old Man (James Carpenter) to the Student (Carl Holvick-Thomas) in the first of three scenes that compose August Strindberg’s 1907 “The Ghost Sonata,” now at Cutting Ball Theater.

The Old Man is alluding to the interwoven and torturous relationships among the inhabitants of a mansion whose facade stretches across the shallow stage in designer Michael Locher’s effective, moveable set.

“It’s damned complicated,” agrees the mystified Student, gazing at the building, which seems like paradise to him, and at the beautiful young Colonel’s daughter in the window.

Complicated is an understatement. In this “chamber play” — a series of short yet dense one-acts by the Swedish playwright, all on similar themes — no character is exactly what he or she seems, except, perhaps, the Student.

A dead man walks silently. A milkmaid is invisible to some. The parrotlike Mummy has moments of absolute clarity. A servant was once a master. The Colonel is not really a colonel. His harp-playing daughter may not really be his daughter. The cook might be an evil witch. And the play’s sly central figure, the Old Man, has an agenda so layered that it’s hard to grasp the ultimate truth about him.

As one of the characters says, language was invented to cover up secrets, not to reveal them. Here, the most unholy secrets are revealed, as characters hint at their own sins and humiliate and expose one another.    

Considered the father of modern drama, Strindberg was an experimentalist, especially with these chamber plays.

Cutting Ball, which specializes in avant-garde classics, is presenting all of them in rep, with newly commissioned translations by Paul Walsh.

And things are off to a solid start with “The Ghost Sonata.” Walsh’s translation feels smooth and fluid, and Rob Melrose directs the melodramatic and at times symbolic material in a style somewhere between realism and expressionism.

A casting coup for this small company is having the inimitable James Carpenter as the Old Man. Carpenter, who can perform equally adeptly in any style, is positively hypnotic in his depiction of the downfall of this complex, manipulative monster. (Carpenter will appear in three of the other four chamber plays.)

Standouts among the principals in the large and somewhat uneven cast are Gwyneth Richards as the Mummy and Michael Moerman and especially David Sinaiko  as servants.

Cliff Caruthers’ tinkly, otherworldly sound effects enhance the dreamy-nightmarish atmosphere.

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