Gamm’s ‘Festen’: Fearless acting and playwriting
Gamm Theatre has followed its fearless production of “Hamlet” with an even more daring production of British playwright David Eldridge’s “Festen,” based on the award-winning Danish film.
Director Tony Estrella directs the New England premiere of the stunning drama about a Danish family with a dark secret.
At first I took offense to Estrella’s Media Alert in my press kit, urging critics to “kindly refrain from revealing key plot points,” but then forgave him as I recalled how many reviews and articles of movies and plays I have read where the writer spoiled the suspense for me. So, here is what I can tell you about this must-see production.
Helge’s family and close friends have gathered for his 60th birthday celebration. To say the family is dysfunctional has become a cliché these days, but believe me, this family is dysfunctional.
Older son Christian (Steve Kidd) gives a toast that shocks everyone around the banquet table, causing feelings of disgust, disbelief, denial and anger.
How will those in the room deal with the accusations? Is Christian’s mentally unstable and imagining things? Where will the plot take us?
Estrella uses the intimate space at Gamm to make the audience feel that they are in that room. There are a few humorous moments to break the tension, and members of the audience react with nervous giggles and in one case a piercing laugh. But the tension is there, and the actors make you feel it. At more than one moment there is complete silence, and you lean forward to see who will speak first.
Kidd plays Christian with a Hamlet-like intensity. He is moody. He is reflective. He is filled with pent-up anger and hate. His twin sister is no longer with us. His younger brother, Michael (Alexander Platt), wears his anger on his sleeve, and he is a real SOB. His younger sister, Helene (Casey Seymour Kim), has lived her life as a rebel, shocking many by bringing a black man (newcomer Amos Hamrick) to the party.
Estrella has brought in veteran Boston actor Will Lyman (the narrator of the PBS series, “Frontline”) to play the father, and what a performance he gives.
There is not a weak link, or an unimportant role, in the cast of 14, from the family members, to the three guests, to the in-laws, to the little girl, to the servants. Kidd is at the center of it all, and our attention focuses on him and then on the reactions of the other participants at the celebration.
Estrella calls the play “dark, twisted and Nordic.” It is also mesmerizing and fearless.
A warning that there is profanity, violence and sexual references and that the play is for mature audiences. I’ve seen many standing ovations over the years at Gamm, but none as sustained as this press night performance.
“Festen” is at the Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St. in Pawtucket, through Feb. 12. Tickets are $34 and $42. For reservations call 723-4266.