An extended family has gathered at a venerable country lodge to celebrate the 60th birthday of Helge, its most accomplished elder. Dinner and drinks have been served, and a reflective, mellow mood has been established.
Then his eldest son, Christian, rises, makes a toast—and accuses the patriarch of sexually abusing him and his dead sister, Linda, when they were children.
It's the moment where everything should change, but in both the 1998 Danish film The Celebration, co-written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, and the 2004 stage adaptation Festen (the original Danish film title) by David Eldridge that Little Green Pig currently presents at The Shadowbox, we gape as the walls stay resolutely up.
Christian's always had an overactive imagination and a flair for the dramatic, the guests are assured. Then there was his time at a sanatorium. The accusation is treated as a faux pas as the patriarch calls for more wine. An anxious toastmaster fumbles for the words to smooth over the incident, and in a few moments, a doddering grandfather rises with an embarrassing anecdote from Helge's childhood. The utter, stubborn normalcy all but swallows the disquiet before.
Director Kevin Ewert presents us here with a singularly thorny valentine: an uncomfortable meditation on rape culture, abuse and the nature of love. Not only does playwright David Eldridge set them side by side; this production superimposes one upon another, when three separate bedroom scenes from the Vinterberg film are staged in the same space, simultaneously.
Christian's emotionally volatile brother, Michael (Jeffrey Detwiler), rails at his wife (Tamara Kissane) before the two engage in awkward, desperate sex, while his sister Helene (Dana Marks) follows clues from a childhood game in a second room, uncovering something about Linda's final moments. Meanwhile, in the third room Pia (Kelley Baker), a servant and longtime family friend, is visibly moved as she watches the troubled Christian as he sleeps.
Jay O'Berski's nuanced and affecting performance in that role would be reason enough to catch this performance. Here, though, he's surrounded by the strongest ensemble I've seen on an area stage in months. Under Ewert's direction, they escort us through the harrowing and at times surreal events that follow Christian's opening challenge.
When the audience is split into two banks, one facing the other across the intimate Shadowbox space, we find ourselves included in the groups here under surveillance. That's entirely apropos, since Eldridge's script gives us more than enough rope with which to second-guess and discount the testimony we've heard—as if we haven't had enough practice after recent high-profile national and local cases.
As we face each other in this small room, we face our own complicity in the culture of rape—how our assumptions and prejudices reinforce the stigma, the damage and the silence. Once more we observe how little many things called love have to do with that sacrament—and that a few things not usually known by that name actually are. Not a useless thought for Valentine's Day.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rotten in denmark...."