A brief re-cap of Theater 101, sub-heading Sweden: In such dramas as Miss Julie, The Father and Creditors, playwright August Strindberg dealt with savage sexual power games. But he didn’t just crack open the taboo topic. He handled it so nakedly, in such a stripped-down fashion.
Creditors, which Broken Gears is presenting in a new adaptation by Steve Young, was written in 1888 — when Chekhov and Shaw were just starting their own, milder theatrical revolutions. Yet this Victorian drama has only three characters, one set, no intermission, and its 80 minutes are a compact, explosive vial of toxic emotions. Just how contemporary can it be? Reviewers have repeatedly cited Strindberg’s obvious influence on playwrights such as Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. But consider a drama powered by masculine betrayal and female deceit, full of spat-out recriminations, and all of it is tightly packed into a stark little time bomb.
Sounds like David Mamet. Just add a lot of cursing and maybe a murder. Serve cold.
A young, sickly artist, Adolph, rests in a hotel lounge with his newfound friend Gustav. They await the return of Tekla, the artist’s novelist-wife. She stomped off after Adolph insulted her about her age. With such tension, the mocking Gustav easily amplifies Adolph’s resentments and suspicions about Tekla. But when she returns, we learn that Gustav is actually Tekla’s first husband, still attracted to her, still wounded, still angling for revenge.
For such a chilly drama, Creditors has been very hot lately. Actor Alan Rickman directed a new adaptation by Scottish writer David Greig (above, left) that got a lot of excited attention — so much so, it transferred from London’s Donmar Warehouse to New York’s BAM last April. Across the continent in 2009, Dallas’ own Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright, Douglas Wright adapted and directed his own version at La Jolla Playhouse (below).
And now we have the Broken Gears production, a handsome-looking bit of simmering sexual poison directed very ably by Rene Moreno. But the question is: Why now? Why Creditors — of all of Strindberg’s neglected plays?
The argument — made by Wright and Greig and Lawson Taitte — is that this is the Strindberg play that lets us get past his shrill misogyny. Tekla needn’t be seen as a late-19th-century cliche: the parasitic female monster, a vessel brimming with the dramatist’s bitterness over his second wife.
But for all of Strindberg’s rage, his misogyny really wasn’t that extreme, considering the sexual climate of the era (see Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture). It says a lot that Strindberg could declare in print that because women hemorrhage blood every month, their development must naturally be stunted. They are equivalent to anemic children. They’re a burden to men — when they’re not an outright threat.
It says even more that this particular Strindberg essay was published in a popular French literary journal, La Revue Blanche. His ideas had a receptive audience.
But the current argument goes that in Creditors, Strindberg fashioned Tekla as a full-fledged individual, bold and modern, even a pre-feminist feminist. She’s cruel, to be sure, but she’s a flesh-and-blood character with real virtues. She’s not simply the Devil in a (Pale) Blue Dress.
Strindberg did indeed create female characters bolder and more independent than any other playwright of the period, even Ibsen. But Strindberg’s women often exist as warnings to men: They’re getting out of control, these harpies. If a woman rules a man, Gustav declares, then chaos has come. Creditors bears this out.
Gustav often spits out judgments like “The foundation of a woman’s love is taking” and regularly calls his ex-wife a thief and a succubus. And Tekla pretty much fills the bill: She cheats on Adolph and drives him to despair. What’s more, it seems the fragile Adolph (left, played by Evan Fuller) is dying from syphilis. To modern eyes, his symptoms appear epileptic, but there is such a thing as syphilitic epilepsy. Indeed, syphilis was so common in the 19th century (and often attacked the nervous system) that many believed epilepsy itself was a sign of venereal disease. It’s one reason epilepsy was long considered a horrible social embarrassment. Ergo, Tekla ends up as that old figure, the Woman as Disease, the Woman as Death.
Even so, Creditors may still be Strindberg’s most even-handed treatment of gender warfare simply because it’s a case of a pox on everyone. Strindberg’s title is plural; it refers to all three characters, to the soul debts they owe, the debts they’re breaking each others’ knees to collect.
So it’s not so much that Tekla’s character is humanized with details and multiple dimensions, it’s that we see her tactics as necessary for survival. It’s this stark treatment of interlocking power plays that has made Creditors seem so current these days. The treatment of Tekla isn’t so much pre-feminist as it is post-feminist: We get to see the strong, hard woman grant no quarter to her enemies — and get none in return.
In this regard, one exchange (perhaps an unintentionally comic one) says a great deal: Incensed at Gustav’s mercilessness, Tekla calls him a “vengeful bastard.” He shouts back, “Frivolous bitch!” In Steven Young’s version, Tekla objects vehemently to this.
But only to “frivolous.” Bitch, she’s fine with.
Still, it’s true that Tekla can be more than a nightmare — provided she’s invested with the charm she must have had once upon a time to ensnare both Gustav and Adolph. This, Meredith Morton simply doesn’t supply. Both of these men must have been complete masochists to have tied themselves to such a cold-hearted creature. And without a sense of strong emotional links being sundered, without real relationships being destroyed, we get only relentless, battling insects.
I’ve gone on about this because it’s really the only weak point in the production. Credit goes to Rene Moreno, of course, but Creditors also must rank as something of a success for Elias Taylorson — he plays Gustav perfectly as a smooth customer who cracks and crumbles in the end. But Taylorson is also a producer and with Moreno, a co-designer of the set. Jeulet Noyes provided all the rich, blue-steel-grey costumes — looking like layered armor. On Broken Gears’ wintry set, the costumes leave the only touch of color the reddish brown of a wooden table or Morten’s fiery hair.
Otherwise, we’re trapped in an ice cave here — with ice monsters. Their frigid touch is electrifying.