Get fired up about Festen. On the heels of a wildly successful Hamlet, the Gamm stages another no-holds-barred Danish drama this month. The powerful, provocative play begins with revelry, as friends and family gather to celebrate a wealthy patriarch’s birthday. But a shocking toast at dinner shifts the tone of the evening. Guests drop their jaws, skeletons tumble from closets, and no one leaves the party unscathed.
Artistic director Tony Estrella helms the production in its New England premiere. He finds it a fitting piece to follow Hamlet due to the similarities – settings of wealth and power, themes of dysfunctional families and revenge. He explains, “Not only is it an incredibly moving and riveting story, it’s an unflinching contemporary tragedy. We don’t see a lot of those. It has the weight of classical tragedy. But, in a sense, it’s much more raw because it doesn’t have the classical language to embellish it.”
The play is based on the explosive 1998 Thomas Vinterberg film of the same title, released as The Celebration stateside. In keeping with the Dogme 95 movement of filmmaking, the movie is naturalistic and painfully intimate, especially in its expressions of sexuality and violence. David Eldridge’s stage adaptation doesn’t shy away from those too-close-for-comfort parts – which may seem closer still in the Gamm’s small theatre. Estrella notes, “It will be intense in our space, and our challenge is going to be to do it in a way that conveys the truth of those moments in all their complexity and doesn’t flinch away from them and at the same time, allows the audience enough room to stay in there with us.”
Though serious in subject matter, Festen is filled with colorful characters of depth and surprising humor. The ensemble cast at the Gamm includes regulars like Steve Kidd as Christian, the son who gives the scandalous toast, Casey Seymour Kim as his sister Helene, and Alexander Platt as their oafish brother Michael. Will Lyman, a Boston-based actor whose voice you may recall from the PBS show Frontline, plays their father, Helge, and Sandra Laub returns to the Gamm stage as his wife, Else.
The less you know about the revelations in Festen before you see it, the better. The play packs the best punch when it blindsides you right along with the party guests. But Estrella offers a few hints on what to expect. He muses, “We think conflicts and wars happen to other people, that they don’t happen to us. Well, they happen to us. They happen in our bedrooms, in our kitchens, in our dining rooms, in our living rooms. In every family, we all decorate for Christmas and try to make the outside of our houses look like everything’s happy on the inside. Drama is always centered around opening that closed door.”
Festen runs January 12-February 12 at the Gamm Theatre.