Relationships, love come at high cost in 'Creditors' at Shakespeare & Company

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LENOX — Gustav, the pivotal figure in August Strindberg's "Creditors," is a man on a mission. More than that. As portrayed by Jonathan Epstein in the generally workmanlike, if uneven, production that opened Sunday at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, he is a force of nature.

Amiable, witty, keen, trenchant, well-dressed and read, Gustav has insinuated himself into the life of a young artist named Adolph (Ryan Winkles), who has, in the eight days he has known Gustav, liberated himself, he says, from the restrictions of painting and found in sculpture what Gustav describes as "authenticity and relevance."

"Sculpture, the solid object — no illusions," Adolph says. The cruel irony is that Adolph's life — as he will learn at the hands of his cruel life coach — has been nothing but one illusion after another.

Adolph has been in thrall of his wife, Tekla (Kristin Wold), who has fashioned a successful career as a novelist. As "Creditors" opens, she is returning to the room at the seaside resort where she and Adolph have been vacationing after an eight-day meeting

Adolph cannot be without Tekla any more than he can be with her.

"Tekla was fully formed when she met me," he tells Gustav, "whereas what was I? Nothing. As an artist I was a mere child. She made me." And while he acknowledges that he from time to time entertains thoughts of what it might be like to be on his own again, Adolph confesses that whenever Tekla leaves him, "I find myself longing for her. I feel her absence as if she were a phantom limb."

Winkles' Adolph is a man playing child's games; reacting to adversity with a child's sense of melodrama. Tekla refers to him as Little Brother and herself as Big Sister.

This Adolph man-child is open, receptive, eager to trust his wife — "The last person a man should trust is his wife. Everybody knows that," Gustav remarks — and Gustav, who will turn out to be far less deserving of Adolph's trust than is Tekla.

As the action plays out within the confines of their lounge-room (smartly designed by John McDermott), it will become all too clear that the stakes in their game of house are high; devastatingly high.

With a skill and talent that make Shakespeare's Iago look like a rank amateur, Gustav goes to work on Adolph, methodically undermining his certainty, his faith in himself, and, most significantly, his relationship with Tekla. As played full-out by Winkles, the whining, malleable Adolph is too easy a mark for Gustav; as handily molded and shaped as the clay Adolph has used to fashion a nude sculpture of Tekla. Epstein's Gustav pursues his mission with unwavering commitment. With his urbane wit, seductive charm and sternly applied paternal command and authority, Gustav bends and shapes Adolph to his will; clouding Adolph's illusory image of the Edenic life he shares with Tekla. Epstein is at the top of his form in this remarkable, hypnotic, richly shaped portrait of a driven, frequently contemptuous man whose moral base has been corroded and left barren.

In a performance that is not as sharply defined, Wold's Tekla runs rings around Winkles' hapless Adolph. She frustrates him and entices him; is open about her way with him and with other men and you catch hints at just how genuine her love is for him. When it comes to Epstein's Gustav, however, this Tekla is not quite the immovable object she needs to be against his irresistible force. That imbalance deprives their encounter here of the edge and tension that underlies the give-and-take between them. Wold's Tekla does not give quite as much as she takes.

Scottish playwright David Greig's translation/adaptation is smart, clean, funny and insightful and moves at a crisper, more purposeful clip than the frequently effortful production director Nicole Ricciardi has built from it.

Early in the play, Adolph refers to Tekla as a woman who's "got more than enough life force of her own." As it turns out, in more ways than one, the true life force on the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre stage is Gustav.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at jborak@erkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6212




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