Gateway Theatre Project's Ghosts
This site-specific staging immerses its small audiences in Ibsen's bleak, tragic world via an Austin home
Reviewed by Trey Gutierrez, Fri., March 6, 2020
You and several others are enjoying drinks at a lovely Clarksville mansion. Within this abode's parlor, adorned with leather-bound books and ornate furniture, a man and a woman begin arguing. With pain in their voices, the two bring up their own sordid history. You're uncomfortable yet intrigued. You know you shouldn't eavesdrop, but you literally can't help it. It'd be rude to ignore these actors midperformance.
With its maiden-voyage production, Ghosts, the recently established Gateway Theatre Project brings Henrik Ibsen's heavy domestic drama to the stage – or rather, the room. Within the confines of a residence in the city, audiences of just 14 attendees are treated to a night of performance fraught with loss, pain, and ill-fated love.
The company's debut comes on the heels of what has been a great month for location-based theatre, performances staged outside traditional settings. While it's been a joy to follow actors through the streets of Hyde Park during the Mi Casa Es Su Teatro day of performances and to step into a 19th century tavern for Archive Theater's The Man of Destiny, there's a question that inevitably arises with these sorts of productions: Why is this piece being staged in this place? What does it gain from this unique setting?
On first glance, this mansion's living room seems an obvious place to stage Ghosts. The play is set in the living quarters of widow Helene Alving as she struggles with her past when her adult son's return reignites past trauma.
Throughout the performance, well-designed tech cues help suspend disbelief. The constantly murmuring rain reinforces a hushed, intimate setting. Toward the climax, as literal fire rages in the script, a hellish red glow shines through a parlor window to suggest as much.
To further our immersion in the play, certain scenes continue "offstage" in other rooms. These moments – staged to give audiences the impression they're hearing information they shouldn't – weigh heavily on our protagonist, Helene. ("Ghosts," she calls them.) In the lead role, Helen Merino communicates Helene's tragic past with a matter-of-factness. Her restraint as an actor and her ability to attune herself to actions occurring beyond the four walls around her effortlessly convey that this room she's in is just one subset of a larger, bleaker world. Similarly, in the role of unwavering authority figure Pastor Manders, Andrew Matthews prods Helene so he can uncover the pain beneath her proper facade, which he then pigheadedly encourages her to keep buried.
It's these powerful, grounded performances and those of the rest of the cast that are often at odds with writer Richard Eyre's fast-paced adaptation (which cuts the original run time of Ibsen's script nearly in half). Tackling this story with admirable grace is director Rosalind Faires, who guides Ghosts steadily from one emotional beat to another. It's her decision to linger on the show's key dramatic moments, to let her characters fester in them, that pulls humanity out of a script that borders on melodrama.
This production's effectiveness lies in how Faires and her team earn the space they're in, something that's revealed slowly as these walls trap the audience in these characters' painful daily lives. Perhaps the greatest evidence of Gateway's success is that, during the post-show mixer, audience members can find themselves watching what they say, careful not to draw the attention of those around them, lest they too be judged by their peers in the bleak, oftentimes tragic world that Gateway Theatre has created in this Austin living room.
Through March 8
Run time: 1 hr., 20 min.