"Burnt House" by August Strindberg, translated by Robert Greer,
adapted and directed by Whitney Aronson

October 4 to 29, 2015 - Gene Frankel Theatre
Presented by August Strindberg Repertory Theatre in association with Theater Resources Unlimited.
Performed in rotation with "The Storm" by August Strindberg, adapted and directed by Robert Greer

Toby Macdonald (The Stranger) and Jason Paul Tate (The Dyer).
Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

When a man's house comes down, so do the layers of secrets he has built his life on in August Strindberg's "Burnt House." The play was staged in a new translation by Robert Greer that was adapted and directed by Whitney Gail Aronson. "Burnt House" is Opus 2 of Strindberg's late-career Chamber Plays. As part of a month-long examination of Strindberg's final works, it was staged in rotating repertory with Opus 1 of the Chamber Plays, "The Storm," adapted and directed by Greer.

"Burnt House" is the story of a dyer of fabrics whose house has burned down. There are a number of suspects and anyone could be the culprit. Adultery, family criminal activity, and old sibling rivalries emerge as the mystery unfolds. Not only has his house been destroyed, but also the metaphorical walls the house owner has erected.

The play takes place in the cinders of a burned home, on a street where, according to the town's stone mason, "What's buried when it snows comes to light when it thaws." It's a neighborhood where everybody hates, suspects, double-crosses and torments each other. The fire has started gossip; gossip has widened into accusation and all that it rotten has come to light. Into this picture steps The Stranger, an alter-ego for Strindberg himself, who will sort it all out. There is a strong theme of coming home, with the message that you can run away from your problems, but eventually you will have to face your demons.

"Burnt House" is in the same vein as Strindberg's sprawling memory plays, "To Damascus" and "The Great Highway," and to a lesser degree "Dreamplay" and "The Ghost Sonata," mostly in its tone. It exemplifies Strindberg's recurring theme of stripping away facades to reveal dark secrets that were hidden from view.

The Chamber Plays ("The Storm," "Burnt House," "The Ghost Sonata", "The Pelican" and "The Black Glove") are Strindberg's final writings. After their debuts in Strindberg's Intimate Theater in Stockholm in 1907-8, the playwright fell into declining health and died in 1911. These plays were written as a set with musical concepts. "The Storm" has very specific music cues. "The Ghost Sonata" is an actual sonata. The plays even have Opus numbers: "The Storm" is Op. 1 and "Burnt House" is Op. 2, although their premieres did not take place in that order.

August Strindberg Rep presented in rep the two plays of that series in which a house of several apartments is integral to the dramatic situation. In "The Storm," the house is home to a prominent old government minister, who had lived happily there with a wife he had abandoned. She moves back to it, to the apartment above him, with their daughter and a new husband. In "Burnt House," revelations about the characters manifest even physically in the Dyer's house, which before the fire had appeared to be the home of an honorable merchant. After the fire, it turns out to have double walls for smuggling goods.

Through the years, Sweden's greatest directors have staged both plays. "Burnt House" has had two major historic revivals which took it different directions. In the 1930s in Gothenberg, it was treated it as a comedy. In the 1950s at the Royal Theater in Stockholm, it was played as a period piece with local color. Its prototypical characters are the kind that Swedes would have remembered from their childhood.

In keeping with the minimalist style productions at Strindberg's Intimate Theatre (which were radical in their time), both "Burnt House" and "The Storm" were produced on an essentially bare stage. "Burnt House" had hanging scenery evoking the orchard visible now that the house that had obscured its view has burnt down. In "The Storm," the façade of The Cabinet Minister's house served as the fourth wall.

Michael Donaldson and Madeleine Saidenberg.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

"Burnt House has its own haunting music and message [which is to] confront one’s demons or run the risk of becoming a 'moth to a flame.' No weak links in this cast. . . all hold the stage and inhabit their characters with realism....August Strindberg Repertory Theatre is one of the best-kept secrets in New York...So keep your ear tuned to this company. They are making some mighty fine music with the Scandinavian master’s late-career works." -- Diedre Donovan, Theaterscene.com