Gamm's Festen; plus Whistler's Fen

Last supper
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  February 1, 2012

main_Festen_480
PARTY GONE OUT OF BOUNDSFesten posits dreamy juxtaposition of tabloid-worthy revelation, familial violence, and quaint, jocular festivity.
"Denmark's a prison," opined Hamlet some 400 years ago. And Festen, in a riveting New England premiere by Pawtucket's Gamm Theatre (through February 12), proves there are worse things locked up in it than felons. Adapted from the 1998 Dogme film (released here as The Celebration) by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov, and Bo Hr. Hansen, English dramatist David Eldridge's 2004 treatment of a birthday party gone wrong not only reaches thematic tentacles back to the Dane but peers into a cell full of vigorous politesse and dirty secrets. Just what those secrets are reviewers have been asked not to say. But the genius of the piece lies in its dreamy juxtaposition of tabloid-worthy revelation, familial violence, and quaint, jocular festivity. It's patriarch Helge's party, and he'll cry if he has to. But as Tony Estrella's raucous yet lyrical production makes clear, the guests — reluctant to take off their party hats and moral blindfolds — are also guilty.

In the case of Festen, the funeral meats furnish forth the birthday table: Helge's 60th follows hard upon the suicide of his daughter Linda, whose troubled twin, Christian, has arrived resolved to blow out the candles of decorum and indict the father. But in Steve Kidd's agonized yet measured performance, the task is as painful as the revelation. The looser cannon is brother Michael, played by Alexander Platt, whose frenzied volatility only Helge can tamp down. In that role, Will Lyman gives an intensely concentrated performance that makes very clear the iron fist inside the silken, if soiled, glove. Rounding out the clan are ameliorative sister Helene, tenderly rendered by Casey Seymour Kim, and elegant mom Else, kept on a tight, if fraying, leash by Sandra Laub.

Around the shattering of this artfully taped-together family swirls a roundelay of retainers and flunkies, even a cherubic granddaughter, all endeavoring to cloak the ugliness in a blind merriment that takes the form of silly traditional birthday songs and the mannerly tapping of cutlery on crystal. The entire cast manages this with both force and grace in a production well worth the trip to Pawtucket.

Churchill downs

There is no writer quite like Caryl Churchill. Deep wells of poetry bubble beneath the septuagenarian Brit dramatist's sociopolitical and feminist polemics, seldom more so than in the 1983 Fen, which Whistler in the Dark Theatre is presenting, in rep with Churchill's A Number, at the Factory Theatre (through February 4). The play is a bleak group portrait set in the swampy fens of East Anglia, where heartlessness at the top of a multinational agrarian corporate ladder trickles down to farmers pressured to sell their lands and then to the hardscrabble poor who work the potato fields — and haunt them. Churchill's fens resound not just with hard realities, tall tales, and palliative song but with the indicting whispers of ghosts. And Whistler — if its accurate-sounding accents sometimes mar the lyrics — catches the terse tenor of Churchill's music.

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