Creditors: Theater Review

Lacerating classic emerges sharper and clearer in a bracing new adaptation: potent 125-year-old stuff still pertinent despite archaic attitudes. 

The Odyssey Theatre presents Scottish playwright David Greig's adaptation of the 1888 August Strindberg psychological drama.

A physically disabled and emotionally impressionable young painter, Adolph (Burt Grinstead), desiring to pull himself out of a creative funk, has switched to sculpture on the advice of a mysterious new mentor, Gustav (Jack Stehlin). Adolph evidences abandonment anxiety over his absent, slightly older wife, Tekla (Heather Anne Prete), who is returning to their summer seaside hotel on the ferry that afternoon. Gustav insinuatingly counsels Adolph to “man up” in his marriage, aggressively exploiting the artist’s innate self-doubt. When Tekla returns, the scene has been made ripe for argument, grievance, recrimination, submission and ultimatum. Making up is hard to do.

Certainly among August Strindberg’s masterpieces, Creditors, written in 1888 just after Miss Julie, is among the most rarely performed. Perhaps the generally turgid published English translations have contributed to that neglect. The fecund Scottish playwright David Greig (The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union, brilliantly staged in Los Angeles by Open Fist Theater) has remedied that quandary with a concentrated adaptation that falls trippingly on contemporary ears without undermining the eviscerating force of Strindberg’s ideas. It startles daringly and is now blighted by strenuous sexism, yet is still revelatory in its brilliant psychological acuity.

This Creditors remains one of the most innovative and overwhelming expressions of Strindberg’s concept of “psychic murder,” and, alarmingly, its sting feels as fresh and sharply relevant to contemporary relationships even as it stays nestled firmly in both its period and its antiquated nostrums about gender characterizations, vintage vinegar in an old bottle. One needn’t look very deeply into this primordial genius to glimpse the future evolution of so much of the naturalistic and symbolist theater of the past century, virtually all of Eugene O’Neill and a great deal of Edward Albee or Neil LaBute (whose recent adaptation of Miss Julie pales on every count where this one succeeds).

Yet despite our raised consciousness on sexual politics, given a fair hearing, Strindberg resists facile dismissals. While undeniably a mental horror show, aswirl with mind and power games, Creditors is often caustically funny, amused with its own corruption as much as it is appalled at hypocrisies of its characters. Nearly all the misogynistic invective spews from the villainous Gustav, who, while clever and incisive, is almost immediately revealed as someone with a nefarious agenda who deploys apparent truths for duplicitous ends. Indeed, not since Iago had such a vengeful schemer so dexterously manipulated the vulnerabilities of otherwise virtuous victims to goad them to shattering spiritual violence.

For when it comes to dissecting behavior and a profound analysis of the dynamics of conjugal dependencies, Strindberg remains a master behind the superannuated rhetoric (which, not incidentally, crackles). In Greig’s rendition, the actors are given the means to make these delicious and terrifying roles heady with intelligence and conviction. Grinstead may have the hardest task in making the ingenuous and sincere artist plausibly substantial despite his weak will, and after his fine work earlier this season in Dying City, he is unquestionably one of the younger local actors worth following on stage. Prete for me was a new talent, but she expresses enormous subtlety in keeping Tekla’s many dimensions in credible tension, consistently projecting multiple manifestations of her sometimes contradictory complexity.

For his part, Stehlin (Weeds), the artistic director of The New American Theatre (a new moniker for his long-established Circus Theatricals), has been such a continually substantive presence in Los Angeles theater that it has become too easy to take him for granted. Gustav’s feral intellectual is an awesome creation of Strindberg’s, both passionate and parodistic, icily cerebral yet with the persuasive power of a born salesman, and Stehlin revels in the full measure of this wounded monster. He even suggests the kind of satiric self-loathing that undoubtedly influenced Vladimir Nabokov in his invention of Clare Quilty in Lolita.

With this impressive, incisive production, Creditors leaves the audience deeply in its debt.

Venue: The Odyssey Theatre (runs through Dec. 15)

Cast: Burt Grinstead, Heather Anne Prete, Jack Stehlin

Director: David Trainer

Playwright: August Strindberg, adapted by David Greig

Set Designer: Thomas A. Walsh

Lighting Designer: Nicholas Davidson

Sound Designer: Ron Klier

Costume Designer: Merrily Murray-Walsh

Producers: Ron Sossi, Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin

Presented by The New American Theatre and The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble