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To Damascus, Part I

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Kersti Bryan and DeSean Stokes in a scene from To Damascus, Part I (Photo credit: Ina Stinus)

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Eric Grunin, Critic

August Strindberg (1849-1912) is a great and influential dramatist, best known now for the startling frankness of plays like Miss Julie and The Father. However, his later plays, following struggles with mental illness, present difficulties that can never be completely resolved. Whether from insight or desperation, he decided to allow himself the freedom to leave realism behind in the service of reaching a deeper truth, an innovation which led directly to Expressionism and other revolutionary movements. On the other hand, his reliance on “the logic of dreams” is problematic, because what distinguishes dreams from reality is precisely their lack of discernible logic.

A century later his ideas, like those of his contemporary Freud, are either fully integrated into modern thinking (so that they seem obvious) or permanently estranged from it (so that they seem opaque).

To Damascus, Part I is one of the first plays written in the aftermath of his worst breakdown. In structure, it’s more like a medieval Passion Play than a conventional drama. The hero, named only as The Stranger (DeSean Stokes), moves through a series of tableaux much like the Stations of the Cross. He is an author and his journey begins on a street corner where he sits on his bench and observes people going in and out of the café and the church. Who should then come along but The Lady (Kersti Bryan) with whom he has apparently conversed before and who enjoys his conversation and admires his books. She inspires him to begin a journey of self-discovery, although why exactly he needs such a journey is not obvious. One clue is that when he hears that she has not read his latest book, he makes her promise never to read it.

It’s in the course of the next scenes that Strindberg’s method becomes plain: we are seeing things mostly as The Stranger sees them, and The Stranger’s perceptions are not at all stable or reliable. If he is having a paranoid episode, a character turns sinister and conniving, while in his calmer moments the same person appears friendly. As Strindberg himself was recovering from just such episodes, it’s not at all clear whether he did this consciously, but anyone who has had experience with unstable individuals will recognize the pattern.

As things unfold, the people he encounters in his travels do seem always one step ahead, goading and challenging him, and often keeping him in the dark about their true intentions. Also they uniformly disparage his recent book, the one he doesn’t want The Lady to read.

In this way, the first half is spent travelling with The Lady. She’s married, and he’s broke, so it’s a refugee experience, fairly miserable, finally ending up at her mother’s house. All this time, The Stranger grows steadily more agitated, the final straw being that The Lady has finally taken to leafing through that “awful” book…at the urging of her mother (Victoria Blankenship), wouldn’t you know.

The Lady confronts him:

Since I read your terrible book—and I only glanced at it—I feel like I’ve eaten at the tree of knowledge and my eyes are open. Now I see how evil you are, and why you call me Eve. Eve was a mother and brought sin into the world: it was another mother who brought salvation. Through me you shall not destroy my whole sex. Maybe I have a different mission in your life. We’ll see.

He feels betrayed and walks out of her house, ending Act 1.

Next we find him at a place named as The Convent, recuperating from some sort of breakdown. The ‘convent’ is really some amalgam of convent, hospital, and Bedlam. (One wonders what early audiences made of the idea that that psychoanalysts might absorb the traditional social function of priests.) There he is tormented by visions of all the people he has every wronged, which somehow shocks him into trying to be a new and better person. The remainder of Act 2 reverses the progression of Act 1, retracing the sequence of locations, reuniting with The Lady, and in general metaphorically ascending. In the end, he’s back on the street corner observing ordinary life among others, now with The Lady as his wife.

Nathan James and Victor Arnez in a scene from To Damascus, Part I (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Giving this much plot hasn’t spoiled any surprises: the content of the book that caused such trouble is never disclosed–in Act 2 the book is never even mentioned.

The turning towards hope that The Stranger experiences in Act 2 gives the play its name: To Damascus refers to the conversion of the Apostle Paul. According to legend, Paul, until then an active persecutor of Christians, received a literally blinding revelation of Jesus while traveling on the road to Damascus, and was from then on a fervent apostle.

The Lady’s Mother makes this connection for us late in Act 2, though The Stranger’s revelation is neither blinding nor rapid; in fact, Strindberg continued the story almost immediately in To Damascus, Part II, and much later in Part III.

This production has been produced on a shoestring, with performers of varying experience and ability. What director Robert Greer gets very right is that he doesn’t impose an inappropriate consistency on the characters. Normally a person doesn’t shift from nice to nasty without reason, but to a paranoid like The Stranger this happens all the time, and this imagined changeability reinforces the paranoia. So simply by playing Strindberg’s characters straight, without imposing an overarching concept, the play gives us a surprisingly clear idea of what the writer was going through.

The problem of the general obscurity of the text remains, unfortunately. Strindberg consciously put a lot of himself into The Stranger: he is a scandalous writer; he is forever scrabbling for money; his children have been taken from him by the court; his mistress is married and her husband eventually steps out of their way so he can marry her; and he has episodes of hallucination and fits of paranoia. A bad side effect of this overlap is that Strindberg sometimes alludes to a real-life event without seeming to realize that we are missing necessary bits of information. For example, while the book that gets so much attention is never explained to us, Strindberg’s contemporaries may have known that it’s his somewhat scandalous novel, The Defense of a Fool, a mad and sometimes viciously misogynist reimagining of the breakup of his first marriage, featuring “adultery, divorce, and lesbian passions.”

So now the importance of that book makes some sense, and if most of Strindberg’s audience knew all about it that (which is possible), the absence of such background from the text is understandable. But for non-specialists a lot of the dialog is irretrievably obscure, and at the performance under review, about a third of the audience left at intermission.

That’s not to say that the company ignored the problem. On the contrary, director Greer and dramaturg Nathan James (who also acted The Beggar/Caesar) developed an elaborate alternate backstory for The Stranger, melding the lives of the real Strindberg, the fictional Stranger, and a notional Harlem writer of 1962 (this last inspired by events in the life of Amiri Baraka). This detailed backstory was in the programs, and echoed somewhat in the costumes, transitional music, and scenic projections. But the text was still fundamentally the old Graham Rawson translation, with no hint of the vocabulary of 1962, no taste of the grammar of Harlem, nothing of the unique verbal music of the man soon to be known as LeRoi Jones. Changing a place name here and there didn’t get us much closer to either the text or the subtext. The audience might have been served as well, or even better, by taking the same space in the program and giving it over to “what Strindberg’s audience might have known that we don’t.”

It’s possible that the director was uncertain about a mixed-race cast in 1890s Sweden, but one would have thought that Joseph Papp answered that question long ago. And while we’re quibbling: it’s pointless to criticize a no-budget production for being threadbare, but even so the images projected as background stood out as needlessly unpolished.

The director deserves high marks for keeping the actors’ delivery quick and light; anything else would have put the audience to sleep. His cast comes across as sincere but mostly inexperienced, with the fine exceptions of James and Blankenship. Those two were completely at home on the stage, presented real characters, and one looks forward to seeing them again elsewhere.

To Damascus, Part I (through May 11, 2014)

August Strindberg Repertory Theatre, Inc.

Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, between Lafayette Street and 3rd Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.smarttix.com

Running time: two hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (654 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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