NEW YORK — PEER GYNT. Dramatic poem by Henrik Ibsen.
MADAME DE SADE. Play by Mishima. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Performed in repertory by The Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden. Ended last month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
IT has been 10 years since Ingmar Bergman last directed a film, but thanks to the efforts of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, we are not completely denied his brilliance. For several years now, BAM has imported productions from the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden that have been the directed by the master.
Late last month BAM hosted the Bergman productions of Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" and Yukio Mishima's "Madame de Sade." The plays were performed in Swedish, with simultaneous translations via headphones.
One could not ask for two more divergent productions in which to display Bergman's talents. Ibsen's verse play, not written to be staged, is a sprawling epic folk tale that takes place over 50 years ago, with locations ranging from the fiords of Norway to the deserts of Africa, from mountain tops to raging storms at sea.
Mishima's drama is a static mood piece filled with philosophical musings but little if no dramatic action. Both problematic works have been staged triumphantly.
In this "Peer Gynt," Bergman stresses the bawdy, earthy nature of the work. Rather than cast a handsome leading man (or several actors, as is common), he employs Borje Ahlstedt, a round-faced heavy-featured performer who accentuates Peer's clownish nature.
This Peer is almost as grotesque as the characters he encounters on his life's journey, such as the Trolls and the Troll King, whose daughter is coerced into marriage in one of the many fanciful situations of the play. This brilliant comic actor creates a haunting portrait of a lost man wandering the world, and Bergman has provided a vividly theatrical setting for his rowdy misadventures. In scenes with such characters as Anitra (Solveig Ternstrom), the Rubenesque belly dancer, or the Button Molder (Jan- Olaf Strandberg), the recycler of souls who provides a chilling climax to the play, there is endless theatrical imagination.
There are unavoidable slow spots throughout the four-hour production, but just the opportunity to see this rarely staged work makes up for them. The scenic design is simple, yet endlessly inventive, as a large platform in the center of the stage doubles for everything from a storm-tossed ship to a sheer mountainside. The huge cast provides myriad delights; particularly wonderful is the unusual opportunity to see Bibi Andersson (a frequent star of Bergman's films), who plays Peer's mother. Also outstandin g is Lena Endre, as Solveig, the beautiful woman who proves to be Peer's salvation.
In Mishima's "Madame de Sade," the infamous Marquis de Sade is forever the center of attention, but he is never onstage. The play is centered around the women in his life: his wife, her mother, her sister, his housekeeper, and two women, a countess and a baroness, who have been affected by him in wildly different ways. Madame de Sade (Stina Ekblad) is loyal to her husband even when she becomes entirely aware of his shocking behavior, despite the best efforts of her mother (Anita Bjork) to convince her of
his worthlessness. It is only at the very end of the play, when the Marquis is finally freed after years in prison, that she rejects him.
The play, which takes place in a drawing room, spans 12 years; the final act coincides with the French Revolution. It is a dark, somber piece that explores the women as they are defined by their relationships with the Marquis, and it consists largely of declamatory speeches made by the characters while facing the audience.
But Bergman, displaying the acutely sensitive touch that he seems to have when directing women, mines the play for all its power. In this simple production, performed in front of a backdrop with various projections superimposed, each movement, each glance, conveys waves of feeling. The brilliant actresses (this is evident even with the sometimes stilted efforts of the translators) perform with an elegance that belies the passion seething beneath the surface. In its subtlety and emotional power, this prod uction is like seeing one of Bergman's films come to life.