Performing Arts: Theater
September 30, 2014
It’s hard to imagine Scenes from a Marriage without Ingmar Bergman’s auteur vision, squeezing you against Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, whose performances are so delicate yet weighted in their completion, it seems unfathomable that anyone else takes on the parts. In removing Bergman’s imagery, Ivo van Hove not only replaces these actors; he employs three sets of them in a cyclical composite history of Johan and Marianne.

Susannah Flood and Alex Hurt embody the youngest version. They have dinner with fellow married friends Peter and Katarina. Johan extols all his virtues, while Marianne falls short in self-appraisal. Alcohol flows freely down their throats, fueling a reciprocal eruption of provocations. A dining room becomes a shooting range for Peter and Katarina to openly express their mutual contempt, but not actually do anything about it. They have a successful relationship insofar as they love humiliating each other so equally. Jan Versweyveld’s scenery is as notably blank as their love, using water in place of cognac, and furniture as bare as the couple’s teeth.

In the second scene, we see Marianne and Johan some years older, past their youth. Here, Roslyn Ruff expresses Marianne’s anxiety over her lack of intimacy with Dallas Roberts’ Johan. They have a tidal argument, escalating and receding in volume, but always taut in intensity. Both husband and wife lament over their career woes simultaneously with their sexual frustrations – lovemaking, as tedious as work. Embracing quietly amidst children’s toys in the playroom, they manage to apologize without solving problems in a hollow shell of tenderness.

To finish the first act’s trio, we have the eldest version with Tina Benko and Arliss Howard. Johan comes home unexpectedly to tell his wife he has fallen in love and is moving out. The worst has finally happened, until a painful back and forth of Marianne’s pallid acquiescence with her most desperate tactics to make him stay ensues. The next morning, as Marianne helps Johan pack, she plays a record. Music is used as a weapon throughout, but none so subversively as Leonard Cohen whispering, “I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm, your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm.”

When you arrive at New York Theatre Workshop, you are given an armband, the color of which determines your chronology. The other scenes occur simultaneously, on loop until everyone has seen everything. Van Hove expresses the fragmentation of the psyche begot by the fragmentation of a partnership through the fragmentation of the entire performance space. Through thin walls, we can hear the other scenes playing out while viewing our own, as a memories and warnings. Depending on your seat, windows in the walls reveal telling distractions: Young Johan and Marianne excitedly discuss having children while old Marianne frantically gyrates on a nonresponsive Johan; The middle age version cuddle in reconciliation while old Johan drags his suitcase with Marianne latching on.

After a half-hour intermission (for set changes, though equally necessary for digestion), the space has opened. All three versions speak the same text in unison, canon, and, most often, in jarring heterophony, each playing the scene worlds apart in intention. Different generations mix; you see how similar the Johans are against the bi-racial cast of Mariannes. Needing only to sign divorce papers, they have neurotic sex offstage, leaving us with ourselves in confused shame before all tensions burst in unchoreographed fighting. Van Hove’s mash-ups are more than juxtaposition; he composes harmonies of affect, true to Bergman’s fixation on reverie while celebrating his writing as equally great as the visuals Van Hove has masterfully hijacked.
EYE ON THE ARTS< NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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