August Strindberg’s play “Easter” is not frequently performed and Slipstream Theatre Initiative is to be commended for this highly accessible, enjoyable adaptation. If you read Strindberg in school but haven’t seen his plays staged, jump at this chance while you can.
Directed by Artistic Director Bailey Boudreau, this production is faithful in spirit to Strindberg’s mystical allegory. This distinct style of storytelling is more about character development than dramatic plot; it deals with moral struggles rather than physical violence; it poses questions and reveals their answers through quiet, poignant dialog, rather than rhetorical ballyhoo. (Yes, think of it as a balm for the non-stop political coverage that chokes the media these days.)
There are any number of funny lines and situations in this play, but it is not quite a comedy—there is too much at stake to laugh it off. And yet we enjoy this cast and the characters they portray. We are surprised by the wisdom of lunatics and the charity of villains, and find ourselves charmed by the way things sort themselves out in the end.
As the title promises, “Easter” is set during Holy Week, and the themes of betrayal, sacrificial suffering, atonement and redemption are everywhere in this allegory. Liturgical songs, classical and popular hymns, underscore the parallels between Passiontide events and the situations faced by Strindberg’s characters.
The play opens as Elis Heyst (Ryan Ernst) proclaims to his fiancée Kristine (Luna Alexander) that the day’s sunny spring weather brings welcome relief. He admits to feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. A gifted teacher, Elis has returned to the family home to deal with impending crisis. His father has been imprisoned for embezzlement; Elis tutors the children whose futures were robbed by his father. But they quickly learn that Lindkvist (David Schoen), a giant of a man to whom the most money is still owed, is in town to claim everything the Heyst family owns. Ellis knows that Heyst is fully within his legal rights, and is resigned to the family’s inescapable destiny. They have already been shamed; now they will be ruined.
Kristine is the rock Elis leans on in hard times, and he is appreciative but jealous of her. She is an intelligent, nurturing woman who has a humorous, quiet battle of wills with the matriarch of the family –the indomitable Mrs. Heyst (Jan Cartwright). A proud mother and wife, she carries on with a delusional false pride, pretending her husband is innocent even though she knows herself to be complicit in his embezzlement schemes.
Eleonora (Lauren Alo) is the younger sister who Elis sent to the nearby asylum for treatment. Eleonora fits the old Russian profile of the “holy fool,” a person who has seen the face of God, who is “mad” in the eyes of the secular world because they speak prophesy and care little for such mundane matters as food, shelter and earthly goods. Eleonora suffers from profound physical empathy, she feels the pain of others, especially her loved ones. She sees more deeply than others, with what she calls her “magnified eye.” But she is essentially a sweet and compassionate young lady. She strikes up a friendship with Benjamin (Miles Bond), an orphan whose parents were ruined by Mr. Heyst and who now lives as a student with the family. Benjamin seems to have a calming effect on Eleonora, and she in turn lifts his spirits.
As Elis faces the family’s certain ruin, he anticipates but dreads the visit by Lindkvist. The dread seems justified; Lindkvist has even more power over the family, and more history with his father, than Ellis could have imagined. Ellis is braced to accepted the stern fist of justice, but not an unexpected proposition by Lindkvist. Will he be too proud to reach for the hand of mercy? Can he make a personal sacrifice to save the family? Or will pride come before the fall?
This is a nicely constructed adaptation of a timeless Strindberg play; it explores vitally human questions in an even-handed way, without once forcing the audience into a death march through the moral high ground. It may not suit audiences fed a fatty diet of gory video games and manic political hyperbole, but it is ideal suited to this spring season, which finds us seeking even small reasons to be optimistic about the human condition. This play feeds the soul.
“Easter” features costumes by Bailey Boudreau, artwork by Joshua Daniel Palmer and technical direction and execution by Ryan Ernst. Jackson Abohasira is Assistant Director to Mr. Boudreau.
The production runs through April 4, 2016 with performances on Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays and Mondays at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 (in advance only) and available via the Slipstream Theatre website or by emailing InsideTheSlipstream@gmail.com. Slipstream Theatre Initiative is located at 460 Hilton in Ferndale.