lady from the sea

Chaon Cross, Kelli Simpkins and Gregory Linington in Court Theatre's "The Lady from the Sea." 

“The Lady from the Sea”

Watching “The Lady from the Sea” at Court Theatre, I wasn't sure what I was seeing. Was it Henrik Ibsen's seldom-produced 1888 play or something new meant to be in more sync with a contemporary sensibility? The program says “adapted” from the translation by Richard Nelson and directed by Shana Cooper, but the production is a strange mix of styles for the Norwegian playwright often called “the father of realism.”

The show originally was scheduled to have its first preview on the March 2020 eve of the pandemic shutdown, and Court took advantage of the delay to commission the translation by Nelson (“The Apple Family Plays,” among many others). Cooper, who is making her Chicago directorial debut, was able to reassemble the entire cast and design team, so the opening last week was hotly anticipated.

The evening begins with a haunting image (not in Ibsen) of a woman swimming mermaid-like, seemingly underwater, across the stage behind a wall of sliding-glass doors. Reflective of what is going on in front of them as well as revealing of what is behind, they also serve as the entrance to Dr. Wangel's home. The rest of Andrew Boyce's scenic design consists of a mottled-blue wall and a beach area on which water is encroaching, a few boulders and some furniture brought on and off as needed. It's rather surreal, especially with the eerie lighting and projections designed by Keith Parham and Paul Toben, as well as Erin Pleake and Andre Pluess' unsettling sound design.

While the action takes place in summer in a small fjord town in Northern Norway, the set suggests the seaside where Ellida (Chaon Cross), the swimmer in the opening, grew up. The daughter of a lighthouse keeper, she loves the sea but left her home when she married the widowed Dr. Wangel (Gregory Linington). Now she lives with him and his two adult daughters who, as the play opens, are celebrating the birthday of their dead mother, his first wife. Bollette (Tanya Thai McBride), the elder, longs to get out of town to get an education, and Hilda (Angela Morris) craves the attention Ellida doesn't give her, so she takes it out by being nasty to others.

Ellida's failure to fit in is evident in everything from her flowing green and red outfits so unlike the others' Victorian-ish clothing (costumes by Linda Roethke) to her increasingly erratic behavior. Dr. Wangel thinks it's because she's distraught over the death of their baby son and misses the sea, so he's invited Arnholm (Samuel Taylor), once her suitor and Bollette's former tutor, to see if he can help.

He can't because Ellida has a secret that's driving her mad. Years ago, she loved a sailor who had to flee because he'd murdered his captain, but he promised to return for her, and she's as inexorably drawn to him as she is to the sea. When she finds out The Stranger (Kelli Simpkins) has come back to claim her, she's torn between him and the obligations of her marriage.

A series of intense conversations between the out-of-control Ellida (Cross is compelling) and the comparatively calm Dr. Wangel make up a large chunk of the play. The emphasis in this version is on Ellida's repeated insistence that she have complete free choice, so he must release her from her vows. She even says she didn't have a choice in marrying him; it was merely a matter of expediency. Dr. Wangel initially says he's been trying to protect her but, unlike the rigid husbands in Ibsen's “A Doll's House” (written years before “The Lady”) and “Hedda Gabler” (written two years after), he realizes he has to set her free to have any chance of keeping her.

One issue here is that The Stranger's hold on Ellida's seems tenuous at best. Although there's some logic to casting a woman in the role (the sea often is seen as feminine), the sexual attraction is missing.

Alternating with the conflicts of the central trio are scenes involving the other characters, who often come across as Chekhovian and, like Dr. Wangel, are victims of misunderstandings. The aging Arnholm thinks he's been invited not for Ellida but because Bollette fancies him as he does her, which is not all the case, though a kind of devil's bargain ensues. Lyngstrand (Will Mobley), a young artist who's unaware of his lack of talent or the fact that he's dying, stops by with flowers for Ellida, thinking it is her birthday rather than the dead wife's. Hilda taunts him for his efforts. And Ballested (Dexter Zollicoffer), a painter and jack of all trades, has the skinny on everybody.

Directed with a lighter touch by Cooper, these scenes are quite funny and buoy a depressing experience, despite a “happy” ending.

At the other end of the spectrum, Cooper introduces interludes of dance-like movement choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch. Fraught with tortured gestures and contortions, they're supposed to embody the characters' inner turmoil (I guess), but I found them intrusive and just a bit pretentious.

Court Theatre is to be congratulated for staging “The Lady from the Sea” at all and for having the courage to be experimental. I just wish the experiment were more consistently successful.

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through March 27. $37.50 - $84. 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org

“Solaris”

Griffin Theatre Company has a knack for staging solid productions of thought-provoking plays, and the North American premiere of David Greig's 2019 “Solaris” is no exception. Based on Polish author Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel, and probably better known from Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film and Steven Soderbergh's 2002 one, the sci-fi thriller tackles love, loss, loneliness, isolation, communication, the possibilities and limitations of making contact with alien life, and the moral and ethical responsibilities of doing so.

All this is contained in an engrossing story that starts with psychologist Kris Kelvin (Isa Arciniegas) arriving on a space station that has been studying the title water-covered planet as it orbits its two suns, one red and one blue. She soon learns that her teacher and the mission leader, Dr. Gibarian (Larry Baldacci, on video projections), has died under mysterious circumstances, and that the two other scientists, Dr. Snow (TJ Thomas) and Dr. Sartorius (Nicole Laurenzi), are behaving strangely and more than ready to go home after two years.

Additional information emerges after Kelvin awakens one night terrified to find a man in bed with her. He's Ray (John Drea), her lover from years ago who committed suicide. But, as the others tell her, he's not really Ray but rather a simulacrum created from her memories and dreams by the planet, which is really one vast watery consciousness that has been sending them “gifts” beginning with objects and graduating to other “visitors.”

Ray is the first “visitor” who speaks and interacts with humans (there's also a silent child wandering around), and while Snow and Sartorius (who sees a sinister side) want to learn more about him, Kelvin finds herself falling in love, even though she knows he isn't real. Ray, for his part, starts having an identity crisis, not knowing who or what he is. The situation escalates to a crisis with an incomplete resolution.

Under Scott Weinstein's direction, the whole cast is good, but Drea's Ray is especially captivating as an increasingly complicated being who is childlike and willful at first and then more confused as he becomes more self-aware.

Joe Schermoly's scenic design makes canny use of the small space with a series of sliding panels and wall cabinets filled with deliberately retro props by Ivy Treccani. Brandon Wardell's lighting highlights the sterility of the station, while Yeaji Kim's projections and video design and Eric Backus's music and sound design add the needed special effects and tension. Izumi Inaba's costumes are nicely functional.

All in all, “Solaris” offers a worthwhile trip both to another world and inside the mind.

Griffin Theatre Company at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Through March 27. $40. 773-338-2177. griffintheatre.com

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