Lucian Pintilie's staging of Ibsen's "The Wild Duck," which opened last night at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, is theatrical artistry at its most sublime.
Single-handedly, it counters decades of dutiful, sober-sided productions that have had the cumulative effect of reducing the great 19th-century Norwegian dramatist to a high-minded scold. The textbooks have always told us that Ibsen is one of the giants of the modern age. Pintilie shows us why.
Investigating every crevice of the play with breathtaking originality, staring down Ibsen's deluded characters until they yield their secrets, expanding their sorry attic domain to the full height and depth of the Kreeger stage -- and then some -- he finds what lies at the heart of a masterpiece: the power to astonish. Pintilie has wrought the miracle once before at Arena -- with his cataclysmically funny production of Molie re's "Tartuffe" last season. That he achieves similarly bracing results with Ibsen -- another kettle of dramatic fish entirely -- clinches his stature as one of the world's foremost directors. For all his bravura touches, however, he has the humility of one who knows he is serving a greater master. If Pintilie confronts the classics, tickles and goads them, it is the better to reveal their essence. "The Wild Duck" is an unflinching examination of a poor, shiftless photographer, Hialmar Ekdal (Richard Bauer), who prides himself on being a strong and loving paterfamilias and a potential inventor of genius. In reality, the town's richest citizen, Haakon Werle (Richard Dix), has secretly manipulated Ekdal's life all along, arranged his marriage to a tainted serving girl, subsidized his paltry career and even sired his 14-year-old daughter Hedwig. Little by little, the accumulated fictions will crumble away under the proddings of Werle's son, Gregers (Christopher McCann). A crusading zealot who could be a distant ancestor of Hickey in O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," Gregers insists that only the truth can set men free.
But does it? In "The Wild Duck," the truth knocks the stuffings out of Ekdal, but when he regains his breath he will take refuge once again in pipe dreams. His wife Gina (Tana Hicken) will clean up the wreckage and continue her stoic rounds of housework, as she's always done. The bewildered Hedwig (Rebecca Ellens) is not so resilient, however. In a feverishly misguided attempt to exorcise the family's demons, she will pay with her life.
Indeed, the final moments of reckoning, as Pintilie imagines them, are harrowing. Hedwig hides a pistol in her white pinafore and then climbs up the towering metal staircase that leads to the attic, where the Ekdals keep a sorry collection of rabbits and birds, including the titular wild duck. Her footsteps echo coldly on the metal, then she disappears. We hear a shot, followed by the cacophony of the panicked menagerie. Suddenly, Hedwig's body plummets three stories to the ground, landing with a sickening thud.
In lesser productions, "The Wild Duck" can sometimes seem uncomfortably schematic. Gregers may be the self-appointed angel of the truth, but Ibsen took pains to pit him squarely against Dr. Relling (Stanley Anderson), who believes that man needs his fictions, as much as bread and water, to survive. Their arguments, in fact, are so baldly stated in places that the play could be subtitled "The Case of Unwavering Idealism Versus the Spirit of Tolerant Compromise." If a director is not alert, the Ekdals' tribulations can end up looking like pieces of courtroom evidence. It is Pintilie's inspiration, however, to view the battle as a vast confrontation between darkness ("the sustaining lie") and light (the pitiless truth). Working closely with the gifted set designer Radu Boruzescu, costume designer Miruna Boruzescu and lighting designer Beverly Emmons, he has orchestrated an extraordinary progression from black to white. Beginning in the elegant gloom of the Werle mansion -- with its flaming punch bowls, flickering candelabra and crackling fireplace -- the lighting increases gradually in intensity, until the characters are ultimately trapped in the blazing eye of a searchlight.
Actually, that rotating spotlight is part of the photographic equipment in Ekdal's studio. But Pintilie has given it a life of its own. Like an unforgiving god calling mankind to account, it comes on of its own accord, tracks down the characters and throws its accusatory beams in their faces, just when their need to hide is the strongest.
What makes this production even more amazing, however, is Pintilie's refusal to indulge these creatures in their penchant for martyrdom. The Ekdals may be drawn into a tragedy, but their daily routine is the squalid, petty matter of comedy. When they are not tearing one another apart, they are indulging in foolish pranks and practical jokes. Hedwig teases the hair of her snoring grandfather Old Ekdal (Mark Hammer) into devil's horns, while Old Ekdal is not above dangling a freshly skinned rabbit over the dinner table. They giggle like mindless schoolchildren and dream on like featherbedded fools, all the while their fate is being sealed. And sometimes -- splat! -- the hens in the attic above drop their eggs through the cracks in the floorboards.
As a result, "The Wild Duck" is painfully wrenching and broadly funny. It takes a fine hand to maintain that duality; Pintilie's never falters. The Arena cast, abandoning ingrained mannerisms and attitudes, is clearly invigorated by his remarkable sensibility. Even such longtime company members as Bauer and Hammer look brand-new -- Hammer, creating a delicious portrait of toothless senility; Bauer, discovering in stillness a range of humor and pain that he usually achieves through extravagant physical exertions.
Pintilie invariably puts the performances in a surprising and vivid context -- hence their power. The corrugated metal garage door leading into Ekdal's studio goes up with a clatter. And standing there is Dix -- the very figure of doom, richly robed in black fur, ominously stern, chilling. In a moment of childish abandon, Ellens scampers up a ladder, laughing giddily as she dangles from the rungs -- her arms and legs already simulating the horrible rag-doll fall she will take at the play's end. Hicken, forever harnessed to the drudgery of housework, patiently sweeps up the shards of crockery her husband has impulsively dashed to the floor. Then, disgust overtaking her, she defiantly spills the rubble on his feet.
"The Wild Duck" is replete with such moments -- as illuminating as they are arresting. The metallic, gold-flecked walls of the Werle estate, like a fun-house mirror, multiply the images of powdered party guests and liveried servants bearing candles. The effect, stunning as it is on its own terms, also perfectly captures the plight of characters suspended precariously between illusion and reality.
Likewise, McCann's tight, shrunken suit -- the pants stopping ludicrously just above the ankles -- immediately reveals Gregers' constricted temperament. When the actor's pinched facade momentarily cracks -- and he is seized by a violent coughing convulsion -- we somehow know that dangerous hysteria lurks in his soul. A cough, a candle, a dustpan of china -- each element is intimately and tellingly related to the next. Quite simply, "The Wild Duck" contains more dramatic brilliance than the mind and the eye can register in a single sitting. And yet, such is the clarity of Pintilie's art that it never overwhelms. He invites you to take from this abundant production all that you can. And he leaves you with the certainty that, if you go back, there will be even more.
The Wild Duck, by Henrik Ibsen. Translated by David Westerfer, stage version by Lucian Pintilie, directed by Lucian Pintilie. Sets, Radu Boruzescu; costumes, Miruna Boruzescu; lighting, Beverly Emmons. With Richard Dix, Randy Danson, Christopher McCann, Richard Bauer, Mark Hammer, Rebecca Ellens, Tana Hicken, Stanley Anderson, John Gegenhuber. At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through April 20.