REVIEW” “Creditors” at Shakespeare & Company

by Barbara Waldinger

In a recent interview with the Times Union, Nicole Ricciardi, director of Shakespeare & Company’s current production of Creditors, describes the play as “one ninety-minute song.” Despite the fact that there is no music, Ricciardi and her consummate cast devote themselves to “following the rhythm” in Strindberg’s play.  What a gorgeous song it is!

Although this is the first time in its history that Shakespeare & Company has produced a Strindberg play, one hopes it will not be the last.  Thanks to an accessible translation by playwright David Greig and meticulous direction and performances, this production is a gem and should not be missed.

Creditors concerns Gustav (Jonathan Epstein), a clever, manipulative older man who befriends Adolph (Ryan Winkles), a young successful artist suffering from stress-related ailments.   Over a period of eight days at a seaside hotel, in the absence of Adolph’s older wife, the noted writer Tekla (Kristin Wold),  Gustav sows doubts in Adolph’s mind about her fidelity and about his role as a man and an artist.  The play unfolds in three scenes of two characters each in rotation, a structure expanded upon by Arthur Schnitzler a few years later in La Ronde.

Written during his naturalistic period in the late 1880’s, Strindberg, influenced by French novelist/journalist Emile Zola, fought against the theatricality of the plays of his time.  Drawing on Darwin’s theories, he set out to create flesh and blood characters whose motivations and actions were determined by heredity and environment.  Railing against painted scenery, artificial language and complex subplots, Strindberg insisted on real people in real surroundings. In each of his popular  naturalistic plays, The Father, Miss Julie, Creditors, and The Stronger, a character with a strong, Machiavellian mind forces his/her will on a weak, impressionable victim. In Creditors, the honors go to Gustav, whose powerful influence over Adolph borders on hypnosis (an area of legitimate scientific research in the 1870s).

Epstein’s performance—rich, multi-layered, surprising–is the heart of this production.   His Gustav can metamorphose without warning:  from Oscar Wilde-like epigrams (“one ought not to marry anyone one hasn’t already been married to—at least once”) to threats (“Do as you’re told or I’ll give you a smack”) to predictions of disease and death. His sudden shifts unhinge Winkle’s fragile Adolph, who becomes putty in his hands (“Do what you want with me.  I’ll obey.”)  Watching Epstein evolve from mentor to tormentor and back again, using all the tools of his craft while remaining absolutely real and believable is breathtaking.  Later, when he meets Wold’s Tekla, Epstein moves easily and convincingly from initial shyness to seduction, but, in Strindberg’s misogynistic plays, women are not to be trifled with.

A woman’s strength is on full display in a wonderful scene between Tekla and Adolph, who tries to apply Gustav’s advice about how to act like a man and control his wife.  Caught between the pull of his love for her and the admonition to push her away, Adolph’s predicament is palpable. The two actors circle each other, as Tekla, realizing that her husband is espousing ideas that are clearly not his own, attempts to turn him back into her plaything, her “Little Brother.” As she cajoles, mothers, seduces, it is clear that Tekla’s influence over poor Adolph is as powerful as Gustav’s.

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The aforementioned “rhythm” of this play is mined thoroughly in every scene, every line, vocally by means of tone,  pitch, speed; physically—characters approaching and distancing themselves from one another at key points, using the wide Bernstein stage; and textually–locating the individual beats within every scene as the actors and director work moment to moment to find the smallest modulations.

The set, designed by John McDermott, provides these actors with an environment that is uncluttered, giving them room to express themselves, yet very specific about where they are and how the room is to be used.  A small wooden table with a decanter and glasses on stage left serves as a lounge, while an easel and stool in front of the sculpture of a nude woman on stage right identify the area as an artist’s studio.  Deborah Brothers’ costume designs immediately identify the characters:  Epstein is dressed impeccably, with a jacket, vest, white-collared shirt and tie, carnation, straw hat, cane and even a monocle, while Winkles wears a long paint-stained apron over his clothing and uses crutches to help his character walk.  Wold wears a stunning white jacket and long skirt with a touch of red visible on her camisole and a shocking red crinoline underneath.  Possibly this is based on her comment that her first husband wanted her to wear red, and also evokes her passionate nature.

Creditors is not a musical but one can almost feel musical notations throughout (adagio, allegro, largo, vivace).  It is a delight to watch these actors, at the top of their game, directed by Maestro Ricciardi.

CREDITORS runs from July 19—August 12.  Tickets may be purchased online at shakespeare.org or call 413-637-3353.

Shakespeare & Company presents CREDITORS by August Strindberg, Adapted by David Greig.  Directed by Nicole Ricciardi.  Cast:  Jonathan Epstein (Gustav), Ryan Winkles (Adolph), and Kristin Wold (Tekla).  Scenic Designer: John McDermott; Costume Designer:  Deborah Brothers; Lighting Designer:  James W. Bilnoski; Sound Designer:  Amy Altadonna; Stage Manager:  Maegan Alyse Passafume.

Running Time:  ninety minutes, no intermission; Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA., from July 19; closing August 12.

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