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TheatreWorks' production of 'Wild Duck' tackles truth as toxic force

By: warren epstein Special to The Gazette
April 19, 2013 Updated: April 30, 2013 at 2:35 pm
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When I heard Murray Ross was planning to produce an adaptation of the obscure Henrik Ibsen play 'The Wild Duck, ' I had to ask: 'Are you going to put it in a train or a Ferris wheel? '

Wouldn't be any weirder than Theatreworks' last stunt: Presenting the medieval morality play 'Everyman ' on a bus.

Ross didn't miss a beat.

'Yeah, that's exactly right. We're going to do it on a glass-bottom plane, ' he said with a laugh.

In all seriousness, Ross doesn't think 'The Wild Duck ' needs transportational gimmickry. It may be a rare bird in the states, but in Europe, the drama about a corrupt merchant's idealistic son, who is bent on exposing his father's duplicity, is common fare.

In fact, although Ross had read 'The Wild Duck ' decades ago (as a theater scholar, you pretty much have to), it wasn't until the company's London theater field trip seven years ago that he actually saw a production. And what a production it was.

'I was completely unprepared for how this play electrified me, ' he said. 'A whole lot of people felt the same way, that, 'Wow, this is terrific.' . Ibsen has a reputation of being kind of serious and dark - and Norwegian - and it's not true. '

Actually, the Norwegian part is true.

But Ross finds Ibsen, and particularly 'The Wild Duck, ' a lot more accessible than American audiences might think.

When Ibsen wrote the play in 1884, he was going for natural realism, pushing back against melodrama, which dominated theater at the time. Still, much of the play is grounded in elements of melodrama that American audiences certainly could relate to.

'You have a good guy and you have a bad guy. You have a victim. You have dire events, ' Ross said. 'It's really taut and exciting. It's really good popular stuff. '

Of course, this being Ibsen, yes, it is dark and Norwegian at times. And it doesn't always follow the expected track of melodrama.

'The villain is a guy who absolutely thinks he's the hero, ' Ross said. 'It makes him much more interesting. He carries this flag. He cares about the truth amid this poisonous swamp of deceit. We applaud somebody who tells the truth. It's something we Americans admire. But in this play, telling the truth has dire consequences. Pretty soon, you realize, this just isn't going to work. This could go really bad ... and you sit there and watch as it gradually does. '

Ross chewed on this idea about the truth as a destructive force. He wondered if that's why the play is so popular in Europe and so rare in America, where we believe that 'the truth will set you free. '

Still, he thought local audiences might find the ethical situations captivating.

To test that theory, he recently posted to Facebook the plot of 'The Wild Duck ' in the form of an ethical question:

'You find out your dad had an affair with your best friend's wife - and basically passed the young woman on to him. Do you tell your friend the truth? What would you do? '

He got nearly 30 responses.

'I'd tell my friend ... and mourn my dad's passing, ' one wrote.

'You drink, ' wrote another. 'Then you talk to your dad and tell him to do the right thing. If that is impossible, you talk to the wife. '

Clearly, the question resonated.

But here's the bigger question: Will Theatreworks' production be as good as the one Ross and company saw in London, which was outlandishly critically acclaimed?

'Oh, hell, that's not fair, ' he said. 'That bar was set pretty high. . You don't want to imitate it because you know that's doomed. But we've got really great actors, who've put their own stamp on it, and they've brought their own authenticity to it. I'm very hopeful that we'll have something good up there. '

Worse comes to worse, he can always drag out that glass-bottom plane idea.

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