MIXED EMOTIONS The family cheers the patriarch (Lyman, left).
A certain lugubrious prince had a difficult time in another Danish household, but that was all tea and sympathy compared to the turbulent family in Festen. The compelling drama, directed by Tony Estrella, runs through February 12 at the Gamm.
In a reversal of the usual order, it's adapted from the 1998 Danish film, The Celebration; that was written by Thomas Vinterberg, Morgens Rukov, and Bo Hr. Hensen, adapted by English playwright David Eldridge. The Gamm production is well-accomplished, although characters are sometimes too-lightly sketched in the script. But the story does capture our interest, as malevolent ambiguities unfold against the background of tailgate party frivolity.
The occasion is the 60th birthday of the Hansen family patriarch, Helge (Will Lyman), a dignified gentleman of charm and good humor. In a grim concurrence, though the all-night party is remarkably festive, the birthday celebrants are returning from the funeral of Helge's daughter Linda, who inexplicably committed suicide in that family home a few days before.
An awful surprise emerges in the first half-hour, an accusation of horrific parental abuse, with suspense maintained for most of the rest of the play by the question of whether it is true. The accuser, the late Linda's twin brother, Christian (Steve Kidd), seems to be a stable fellow. But we learn that as a boy he was a hell-raiser, cruel, on one occasion burning the toys of his siblings, out of his "twisted spirit," as his father puts it. Could the charge be a horrendously out-of-proportion getting-back, a sick metaphor for some less extreme truth?
The only thing we're sure we know about Christian, until the end, is his attachment to his dead sister, underscored by fond glances at his brother's little girl (Emeline Herreid). Could a man capable of such dedicated sibling love be capable of such a terrible fabrication?
It is brother Michael (Alexander Platt) who is the unstable one these days, his opening scene a tantrum of abusive rants toward his long-suffering wife, even before he's reminded that he wasn't invited to his father's party. He's proud of his sadistic habits, to the point of brightly advising his young daughter, after he has been rude to the servants, that "when the workers hear from their betters, they listen."
This informs us that he has been so instructed in brutal people skills by the previous generation, in turn passing them on. Having served his part as social evil personified, at his father's command he makes no more scenes. Why not, though, have us glimpse his feral self glowering silently now and then in the background, an even more useful metaphor? Such a unifying tension would be useful.
Individuals, though, remain tense. Nervous sister Helene (Casey Seymour Kim) seems to have survived her childhood with nothing more disruptive than a penchant for black boyfriends. Her date for the day, Gbatokai (Amos Hamrick), starts out having an easy time, until most of the ensemble join in on an exuberantly racist ditty, revealing where they're really at.
Mette, mean Michael's wife, isn't played as a passive punching bag by Karen Carpenter, so at first we wonder why she would stay with such a boor. Later we might guess that it's a sexual bond, but their brief coupling seems, for her, to be just to calm him down.