LIKE another Swede of international renown, the legendary Greta Garbo, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman gave up his movie career long before his admirers were ready to see him go. Indeed, while Garbo's retirement was prompted in part by declining popularity at the box office, Bergman left filmmaking right after the 1983 release of "Fanny and Alexander," one of his most enthusiastically received pictures, if not one of his very best. Since then, Bergman fans outside Sweden have had to content themselves with the occasional TV or stage production to arrive on the international circuit - quite a change for his American followers, who had grown accustomed to a steady flow of new Bergman movies, as well as revivals in art theaters, museums, and other serious-minded venues.
By contrast, fans inside Sweden have been treated to a continuing series of Bergman theatrical events, through which he has maintained his reputation as one of Europe's most brilliant stage directors.
This reputation proved to be more than justified when he brought his daringly avant-garde vision of "Hamlet" to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) a few years ago. Now, as a major event in this season's New York International Festival of the Arts, the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden - a venerable institution that boasts Garbo and Ingrid Bergman among its alumni - is visiting the BAM Majestic Theater with "Bergman on Stage," a series of three classic plays in recent Bergman productions. To open the eve n
t, Bergman and company chose "Miss Julie," the pioneering "naturalistic tragedy" by August Strindberg.
"Miss Julie" is indeed a naturalistic play, focusing on the fierce emotional struggle of a privileged young woman and an ambitious male servant - a struggle involving class distinctions and arbitrary social divisions, as well as sexual attraction and the distinctive psychological traits of the two protagonists. Yet the drama is tempered with impressionistic elements, as Strindberg noted in his own explanatory writing about it.
Bergman takes up this cue, refusing to put his production into the exclusive thrall of naturalism or even realism. True, his setting for the drama has an appearance as "real" as that of any stage environment - perhaps more "real" than Strindberg intended - with authentic-looking props, furnishings, and even plants hanging from the walls. Yet small touches let us know we're in a territory dominated by mental rather than physical events. Most important among these touches is the lighting of the production ,
which undergoes subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in keeping with the shifting emotional climate - surging abruptly from dimness to almost painful brightness, for instance, just as the main characters find themselves entering the last difficult phase of their complex and often agonizing confrontation.
Handled with Bergman's skill and assurance, the lighting and other expressive touches deepen the subtexts of Strindberg's work - subtexts that are essential to its meaning, as the playwright fully recognized - without diminishing its power as viscerally effective drama.
Central to the production's success in this area are superb performances by Peter Stormare, who avoids the occasional emotional excesses that slightly marred his appearance in the title role of Bergman's astonishing "Hamlet," and Lena Olin. Her firm yet intuitive grasp of bedrock performing techniques increases one's appreciation of her appearances in such celebrated movies as "Enemies, a Love Story," for which she received an Academy Award nomination, and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
Gerthi Kulle is also uncommonly strong as the female servant Kristin, and six supporting players do their best as the servants who perform the play's midsummer-night pantomime, staged somewhat awkwardly by Bergman as a drunken revelry that recalls "Viridiana," the darkly comic Luis Bunuel film that also deals with mismatched class relations. Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss designed the finely detailed scenery and costumes.
"Miss Julie" was slated for only three performances at BAM, to be followed by brief runs of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House." Performed in Swedish with simultaneous English translation available through headsets, the "Bergman on Stage" series continues through June 20.
This year's edition of the International Festival of the Arts began June 8, featuring artists from 24 countries who are presenting their work in more than 30 locations throughout the city's five boroughs. The focus of the 1991 festival is the relationship between tradition and innovation in the performing arts - something Bergman clearly understands down to his bones.