Flavorpill: Scenes from a Marriage

Originally published on Flavorpill.

Scenes from a Marriage

When the audience arrives at New York Theatre Workshop for Scenes From A Marriage, director Ivo van Hove’s three-and-a-half hour minimalist stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s lauded 1973 Swedish miniseries-cum-feature-film, each patron receives a colored wristband and two pages of instructions on how this play will work. The audience is divided into three groups, each of whom will experience the first three episodes of the show in a different order, before taking a half-hour break and reconvening for a joint experience in a reconfigured theater space.

The physical layout of the production emphasizes the audience’s role as observer, with each space configured in a way that ensures audience members are always visible to each other, so watching the audience becomes part of the show. During the first three episodes, the performance spaces are arranged around a central room, visible through windows, which functions both as an off-stage space and a second performance space. Through the windows, not only are the actors from the current scene visible, but also occasionally actors and audience members from other scenes. The acoustics of the theater allow for some bleeding of noise from one scene to the next, particularly with music cues and lines that are screamed (and there are quite a few). The result is that the audience is ever aware not only of their own subjectivity and complicity in the relationships of others, but also of the palpable reverberations and foreshadowing between one moment in a relationship and the next.

In each of the first three episodes, the central couple of Johann and Marianne are played by different actors (he is Alex Hurt, Dallas Roberts, and Arliss Howard; she is Susannah Flood, Roslyn Ruff, and Tina Benko), each with a distinct take on his or her character and the dynamic shared by the pair – none of which, its worth noting, share an interpretation with the stars of the film, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Is Marianne a doormat, a fighter, or resigned and tired? Is Johann a charming bastard or a poor shmoe trying his best? By intermission, it’s tempting to read the different interpretations of the performers as commentary on the different stages of the central couple’s lives.

But when the show resumes in an arena-style configuration for the fourth episode, all six actors perform the scene simultaneously: sometimes speaking the lines together (although not in a sing-song unison), sometimes trading off, sometimes switching partners and occasionally even reacting to their “other selves.” Watching the same scene unfold with such different emotions at the same time, yet always hurdling toward the same conclusion, casts the entire play in a new light, subject to new questions.

Despite being based on a property from Sweden in 1973, Emily Mann’s English rendering of the play avoids any language that would ground Johann and Marianne in a particular time and place. The minimalist design avoids clothing and furniture that would answer this question, and the props purposely conflate times, so you might see Johann operate both a rotary phone and an iPhone in the same scene.

There’s a theatrical axiom that the specific becomes universal. It’s why, for example, a show like Fiddler on the Roof can resonate across time and place with audiences who have no familiarity whatsoever with its shtetl culture. In Scenes from a Marriage, van Hove seems to be arguing that the universal can also become specific. By making the time, place, and even the interpretation of the characters diffuse, he invites the viewer into the piece to connect the dots. And whether the play seems to be a riveting drama or cautionary horror story might depend entirely on where you sit, both physically (determining which couple you most focus on) and metaphorically: surely those in long-term relationships or marriages saw a different play than I did, despite witnessing the exact same performance.

While this analysis might make it seem like the actors themselves are irrelevant to the production, it is precisely because each gives such a finely tuned performance that they are able to support the structural weight of van Hove’s production. The exceptional company of actors performs as a meticulously coordinated ensemble while also giving memorable individual turns, and it’s impossible to single out any for extra praise.

While there are a few missteps and head-scratchers embedded within the show’s three hours of playing time, Scenes from a Marriage is an achievement that reminds us why theater remains a unique and vital form in an era drowning in ever-more screens.

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