The turntable on which Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre places its stage version of “Fanny and Alexander” is an apt visual clue to director Stefan Larsson’s elegant production — a beguiling spin through the Dickensian family saga Ingmar Bergman brought to the screen 30 years ago. As music plays, the set pieces go around and around, as if the Ekdahls lived on a carousel of lightening and darkening moods. We catch glimpses of characters in celebration, in lonely terror, in flagrante delicto. Sometimes, the mechanism stops to reveal a room of the Ekdahls’ Uppsala manse — “the little world,” the family calls it — for an extended scene examining one of the characters’ longings or sufferings or musings.
It’s a lovely theatrical diorama, brimming with craft and intelligence, and an example of how artfully considered a stage adaptation can be. Like Bergman’s 188-minute film, the show takes its time — it runs 3 hours 40 minutes (through Saturday) in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. But it doesn’t waste your time. And though you have to do the head-bobbing thing, shifting your gaze from actors speaking Swedish to the surtitles in English, the story is easily followed and handsomely physicalized.
“Fanny and Alexander” is Sweden’s entry in the theater division of the center’s Nordic Cool Festival, and, in its American premiere, it’s undoubtedly the centerpiece. Guiding his supple cast of 19 through the tale of a family of Swedish theater folk in the first decade of the 20th century, Larsson hews to Bergman’s narrative but invests it with a refinement of stage invention, preventing the evening from turning into a mere homage, or looking like a brazen knockoff.
The piece goes, in a sense, from color to black-and-white, charting the traumatic exile of young Fanny (Kajsa Hallden) and Alexander (Hannes Alin) from the loud, histrionic and loving home of their actor-parents Oscar and Emelie Ekdahl (Thomas Hanzon and Livia Millhagen). The Christmastime revels that open the play, wherein Oscar’s vulgar brothers (Christopher Wagelin and Reuben Sallmander) drunkenly pass wind and chase skirts, establish the Ekdahls as free-thinking but careless. The children are torn from the exuberant homestead after Oscar dies suddenly and short-sighted Emelie marries a soulless bishop (Reine Brynolfsson) whose notion of parenting is brutal canings and imprisonment in unlighted attics.
“The carefree, lovely life is over and the dirty, horrid life overwhelms us,” observes the gabby Ekdahl matriarch, Helena, played with warm serenity by Marie Goranzon. The metaphysical divide of “Fanny and Alexander,” between the limitless boundaries of art and the restrictive demands of the social order, are reiterated again and again. “I must teach you and your children to live in the real world,” instructs the outstanding Brynolfsson’s infernally placid Edvard. “It is not my fault that reality is a living hell.”
“Fanny and Alexander” takes pains to remind us of the joyous if transitory escape from reality theater can be. Allusions to Shakespeare’s plays, from “Hamlet” to “The Tempest,” abound; halfway into the proceedings, cast members costumed clownishly line up at the lip of the stage while one recites from Feste’s curtain song from “Twelfth Night.” The song’s lyrics — ironic in light of Fanny and Alexander’s ordeal — are a reminder that childhood and theater are interruptions of life’s soberer passages.
Ultimately, though, “Fanny and Alexander” tilts toward the light, and in emulation of Dickens, the good are rewarded and the forces of misery punished. To that end, the young actors playing the children prove to be endearing presences, particularly Alin as a strong-willed beanpole of an Alexander. Among the other excellent players, Millhagen imbues Emelie with an appealing fervor, and in his turn as licentious Gustav Adolf, Sallmander manages to make buffoonish bombast highly entertaining.
The physical realm created by set designer Rufus Didwiszus, in concert with costume designer Nina Sandstrom, is an inspired hybrid of the artificial worlds of theater and film. The flimsy scenery, like the bishop’s chapel, constructed out of plywood, looks as if it had been hastily assembled on a sound stage; sometimes, an actor walks through a door and waits for his next cue on the other side, in view of the audience. Exits and entrances may be illusory in “Fanny and Alexander’s” graceful demonstration of the art of storytelling. But the comfort one feels in the embrace of loved ones is always the real thing.
by Ingmar Bergman. Directed by Stefan Larsson. Set, Rufus Didwiszus; costumes, Nina Sandstrom; lighting, Torben Lendorph; dramaturg, Sven Hugo Persson. With Ellen Jelinek, Kicki Bramberg, Kristina Tornqvist, Hans Klinga, Lena Nilsson, Pontus Gustafsson. About 3 hours 40 minutes. Through Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.