Late in his career, August Strindberg wrote four short works he called “chamber plays” for the opening of a theater he had established to present drama the way he wanted to. The Intimate Theater opened in Stockholm in 1907 with The Pelican, a weird one-act influenced by the playwright’s studies of Swedenborg and incorporating his interest in the occult. Rarely seen today, The Pelican, in the Voyage Theater Company’s recent production, seems an experiment that didn’t hit the mark, largely because it feels incomplete.
An old-fashioned domestic story cloaked in modernism, The Pelican depicts a middle-class family just after the death of the paterfamilias. As the body rots in the next room awaiting burial, an acerbic maid (a sparkling Pauline Walsh) gives us the family dirt through her comments to Elise, the not-so-grieving widow, about the inadequate food and heating – and by implication, the lack of love – provided to the children by their mother.
Frederik, a drunken, consumptive law student, still lives at home, coughing and shivering. Gerda, equally immature in a different way, returns from a cut-short honeymoon with suave husband Axel (Thomas Brazzle), who has married into the family for reasons rather distant from love. But that revelation, and others, come to us dramatically unearned. Aiming at concision and force, the script neglects to lay the needed groundwork.
Not surprisingly, the actors can’t find footholds. The stillness of Mary Round’s Elise seems to hide not the quiet evil of cold mothering, but blankness. Nicholas Westemeyer’s Frederik overcompensates with one-dimensional angry bluster – until the meaty final scene, when he gets to bond with his infertile sister, whom Malka Wallick gives a sense of stoic tragedy, and each gains a partner to play off of.
As the play was unknown to me, all I can say about the new translation by Charles C. Bales and Kalle Westerling (Bales and Wayne Maugans co-directed) is that it seems sturdy enough. The fine, simple set by Peri Grabin Leong struck me as just what Strindberg would have ordered, and Dan Henry Bøhler’s video effects help make the inflammatory ending very effective.
Westerling’s program notes tell us of speculations that The Pelican is unfinished, or was meant as a play within a play. Either circumstance would explain a lot. Voyage’s interesting but not very satisfying production ran from May 5-14 at the Fourth Street Theatre in New York City.