Henrik Ibsen’s playGhostswas recently produced at a local play house and although I enjoyed the entire production, I felt there was one actor who stood out among the others. Kent Johnson’s portrayal of Jacob Engstrand was either a great performance with solid depth, or I’m just babbling on about a shoddy performance.
The set has a white sheet pulled from the back of the stage to the front, serving as both background and flooring. The furniture, a couch with a coffee table, a small wooden chair and table, a chandelier, are antiques. The couch is an elegant white with some yellow stitching trim, no doubt to resemble gold. The chandelier is hung low, about a foot off of the floor, which is odd but serves as an object to walk around, keeping others at a distance. The chandelier also is representative of the “upper class” mentality everyone tries to portray at one point or another but by displaying the chandelier so low shows the audience that these “elites” are no higher than us.
Kent Johnson either does a wonderful job of portraying Jacob Engstrand under terrific directing by John Johnston, or they completely missed a great opportunity at showing the lengths Engstrand would go to in order to deceive everyone. Engstrand has a long standing leg injury from falling down a set of stairs at a bar when attempting to “convert” the patrons. Regina even mentions how she is tired of hearing about his leg, “Ugh–! And that leg too!” Yet the only time Johnson sits down is at the beginning of the play when it’s just Engstrand and Regina and Johnson chooses to sit on the regal white couch over the wooden chair. Rest of the play, Johnson is standing and walking around. Even Johnson’s walk is indicative of Engstrand sandbagging his injury. A man with a leg pain bad enough to warrant a can would always strike the ground with the cane first, then his foot. Johnston put his cane down first early in the play but discontinued as the play progressed.
The funniest of Engstrand’s lies is his inept ability to keep hold of his hat when in the presence of Phillip Leahl’s Pastor Manders. Johnston would “accidently” drop his hat near the Pastor’s feet and glance at Leahl expectantly, waiting for eye-contact before making a feeble attempt to reach for it.
When we first meet Engstrand, Johnson is wearing a dirty white shirt and patchy pants, black shoes with his injured leg having a small wooden black tied to its foot, and a black bowler-hat. Later, Engstrand first comes to see Pastor Manders, Johnson is wearing the same cloths as earlier but now he has donned a gray vest and his hair has been wetted and combed. Engstrand is a poor carpenter. Engstrand probably spends a lot of money being “out on the loose.”
Being that Engstrand is crippled, even slightly, his work must suffer making him a less than valuable worker. It is little wonder then that Engstrand’s clothes be dirty and patchy. Still Engstrand’s shirt was once white, when he agreed to keep his wife’s secret to himself; he was doing well for her and her daughter’s benefit. But Engstrand’s wretchedness has tainted his white shirt, not enough to blacken it, but enough to dirty it.
Engstrand never shows any true emotion. Any point that you might expect an emotion to appear, you enter wondering what is his motive or angle. The pain in his leg looks over dramatized, which is well within character, and his attempts at seeming humble and devote are laughable. Even when Engstrand has won his way with Pastor Manders and you know he must be happy. But Engstrand must not appear to be too happy so Pastor Manders will continue to be Enstrand’s every beck and call.
Johnston portrays Engstrand exactly as I imagined while reading with one exception. Johnston is quite obviously a tall man, possibly 6′ 5″, maybe taller. Even hunched over and slouching as much as possible, Johnston still towers over the rest of the cast. I had pictured Engstrand as being about 5′ 7″ or 5′ 8″, rough stubble around his face, and an accent that sounds vaguely like a pirate. I guessed that at one time or another in his youth he might have been a sailor since the only town any speaks of is obviously a port town and Ibsen grew up in a port town. Johnston nailed each expected aspect, though the accent wasn’t exactly pirate-like, I felt like he did have a sailor’s air about him.
I really enjoyed watching the play far more than reading it. Seeing the characters come to life, I could read into each personality better than just the black and white of paper. Seeing Leahl’s reaction to every temptation was hilarious and really helped to keep the audience engage in between character changes such as when Regina went to get Mrs. Alving.
I suppose most of all; I enjoyed watching the end of the play with my wife who had a fascinating take on the medical basis of the play with historical perspective. The suddenness of Oswalt’s catatonic condition is not indicative of syphilis as we now know it. Historically, many people thought to have died of neurosyphilis actually suffered from schizophrenia. Patients who have been diagnosed as schizophrenic are categorized into five types. The two most likely portrayed are: residual, they hear voices in their head but at a low intensity, and catatonic, they are unable to talk or can only manage to repeat one or two words. Both the bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia are hereditary. It is my wife’s belief that Oswalt suffered from a bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia passed down from his father. Given that Mrs. Alving complained of hearing ghosts, I believe Mrs. Alving suffers from a positive reaction to schizophrenia and Mr. Alving suffered from bi-polar disorder which resulted in mood swings, drinking, and fornicating. Oswalt received both while his half-sister may not have received either.