The ships in Karston Bernick’s yard may not be seaworthy, but it’s a safe homecoming for Strawdog Theatre Company. After a season of bouncing around the city, the venerable non-Equity company is mounting its first show in its new permanent home, close to its old one. And the show selection is as daring as it is inspired: Pillars of the Community, the first of Henrik Ibsen’s 12-play prose cycle. Veteran Strawdog director Elly Green (After Miss Julie), makes full use of the refurbished space’s new design capabilities and the company’s ensemble casting to mount this rarely seen classic about what it means to live truthfully in the face of community pressure.
Gambling a Whole Town’s Future
Things are looking good in nineteen-century Norway for Karston Bernick (John Henry Roberts). He has made the shipyard he inherited a success, he has the respect of the town, and he and his partners have secretly bought up land for a railway extension which will make them even richer. (And benefit the town, of course.) But then, some most unwelcome characters from his past return from exile in America. Johan Tonneson (Kroydell Galima) fled in disgrace after a sex scandal involving the family of Karston’s wife and the mother of Karston's adoptive niece, Dina (Kamille Dawkins). When he disappeared, so did much of the shipyard’s money. Johan’s return, along with that of his progressive firebrand older sister Lona Hessel (Allison Latta), is a disruption Karston didn’t need right when his reputation for trustworthiness is most crucial to enacting his plans. Johan didn’t come with bad intentions, but he underestimated the degree of hostility he would face from the town over rumors Karston did not correct. Meanwhile, there are two ships in the yard whose owners are insistent they sail as soon as possible despite the extensive repairs still necessary and tensions between Karston and his laborers. Ships that are insured for more than they are worth…
Strawdog Theatre Company’s Strengths Complement the Well-Made Play
The theme Ibsen most frequently returned to is the conflict between pursuing one’s own direst needs vs. upholding communal harmony. By 1877, he had written several fantastical verse dramas, but prose and realism were a new direction for him. For pointers, he turned to Eugène Scribe’s formulaic well-made plays, in which a convoluted plot is set up and then allowed to unfold toward its inevitable conclusion. In the case of Pillars, this resulted in an overly large cast and a confusing backstory for the sake of a b-plot, but Green has selected actors for the perfect blend of drama, satire, and humor. (She also selected a 2005 adaptation by Samuel Adamson that makes the language sound a bit more relatable.) We are introduced to the town through the self-satisfied sermonizing of Mr. Rorlund (Gage Wallace) and to the backstory through the judgmental, vicious gossip of Mrs. Rummel (Michaela Petro) and Mrs. Holt (Asia Jackson). While lots of audience members consulted their programs early on, the vehemence with which the characters establish their moral standing is amusing enough to make the set-up forgivable, and once the play begins in earnest, it’s much easier to follow along.
A Character Study Shines Through
Each character is faithful to a type. Johan is solid, Lona’s true compassion contrasts with the condescension of the society ladies, Dina is eager for a better life, and Rorlund is an ass but opposed to the excesses of capitalism. At the center of them all is Karston, who in a masterful performance by Roberts is brilliant but petty, charismatic but habitually snarky, neurotic but selfish, and who possesses an earnest desire to be better than he is. Green has staged the drama so that the townspeople are constantly scrutinizing him and intruding on his house. Breaking with strict realism, sound designer Morgan Lake has supplied an expressionistic violin frenzy as Karston’s stress increases, and the whole stage is surrounded by set designer John Wilson’s detailed, spooky reproduction of a doomed ship. The inexorable movement of the well-made play becomes a trap for Karston that will spell death for him and his family, unless he can summon the courage to change course at the last minute. As Ibsen grew more comfortable with prose he drifted from the plot-driven well-made-play, but in this instance, he injected the formula with his keen perception of what motivates people to free or destroy themselves. With ideal design and casting, Strawdog’s revival is an opportunity to see this play at its full potential.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Strawdog Theatre Company
1802 W Berenice, Chicago
Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm
Sundays at 4:00 pm
Running time is two and a half hours with one intermission.
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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