Thursday, April 9, 2015

“Posterity”- A Look At What Legacy Really Means

By Judd Hollander

Every so often in the theatre there are moments when an actor can come on stage and literally suck the air right of the room, so strong is his performance. Such a moment occurs when John Noble is first seen in Doug Wright's absolutely brilliant production of Posterity, now at the Atlantic Theater Company.

Norway, 1901. Sculptor Gustav Vigeland (Hamish Linklater) is a typical temperamental artist. A man with an intense work ethic, he disdains creating portraits and preening statues, preferring instead to craft pieces of real art. Such as a tableau involving a middle aged woman and a young man in a pose indicating multiple meanings. However Gustav's somewhat rash attitudes have also made him a person with an unfortunate reputation, one that's kept him more often then not only "a few kopecks shy of bankruptcy".

A possible chance of salvation arrives when Vigeland's benefactor, Sophus Larpent (Henry Stram) offers him a commission to sculpt a bust of Henrik Ibsen (Noble), the country's most famous playwright. At first Vigeland adamantly refuses, a refusal made more definite by the fact he must first audition for the job. However when Larpent explains that by making the bust of Ibsen, it might lead to the financial backing for Vigeland's own dream project - that of creating a majestic fountain in the town's square - he finally agrees. Adding to the urgency of the situation is the fact that Ibsen has been ill and thus this will probably be the last commissioned portrait of him before his death.

This is the basic set up for the show, establishing the characters and the situation. All of which changes the moment Nobel first appears, his commanding presence as Ibsen dominating everything and everyone in the room. It's quite interesting to watch the relationship between Ibsen and Vigeland as their initial scene together progresses. Each curious about the other while also having at least begrudging appreciation for the other's work. While Ibsen and Vigeland do not develop a master/apprentice relationship, there is a definite feeling of a younger generation trying to understand the older. These moments becoming particularly clear when Vigeland is sitting on the floor with Ibsen towering over him, the sculptor listening intently to what Ibsen has to say. Though as their conversation continues, their relationship begins to change to one of dueling antagonists. Vigeland tossing continuous verbal challenges at Ibsen, the latter neatly deflecting almost all, though there are a few that do get through. Listen for one particular moment, which also comes back as a nice bit of irony later on where Wright takes a swipe at the hypocrisy of people who criticize only when it's fashionable to do so, while conveniently forgetting what they've said previously when circumstances change. Another good bit of irony occurs when Larpent comments on how he was in the audience when one of Ibsen's most famous works was first preformed, Ibsen remarking how he's heard thousands of people tell him that over the years and how strange it was that the theatre only sat a few hundred.

A running theme throughout the play is the question of a person's legacy. Ibsen is both proud of his work and determined it is through his plays that he will be remembered. Vigeland on the other hand is desperate for Ibsen to allow him to do the portrait, humbling himself in ways he probably would never do otherwise in an attempt to lay the groundwork for his own legacy. There's also Anfinn Beck (Mickey Theis), Gustav's young apprentice, determined to strike out on his own and win a prestigious art competition; while Greta (Dale Soules), Larpent's housekeeper and Vigeland's latest model is more concerned of ensuring that her husband, child and herself will always have enough food to eat, she currently being the only breadwinner in the family. Something certainly not as grand as the aspirations of the other people presented, but still quite important in its own right.

Wright's script, as well as his direction, is letter perfect, The pace of the story slowly building the tension between the two main characters, culminating in a brilliant confrontation with both gentlemen holding firm to their own particular beliefs and goals. At least until each man's vulnerabilities are revealed, particularly in regards to who they've betrayed in their lives; as they realize each is dependant on the other in regards to how their legacy will be ensured.

Noble is excellent as Ibsen, showing him to be a powerful, strong and imposing figure, yet someone with a carefully constructed veneer so as not to let anyone get too close. Linklater's strong portrayal of Vigeland is the complete opposite. Coming across as blustering and argumentative while continually feeling the frustration at being so close to his own personal goal while knowing he can't achieve it without help. Linklater and Noble's scenes together among the best to grace the stage in this or any recent theatre season. Stram is good as Larpent, part bureaucrat, part art patron and, like many of his ilk, content to help the careers of others while not so much concerned about his own place in history. Soules gets off some nice comic and sarcastic moments as Greta, while also offering some plain truths on meaning of beauty. Theis is nicely earnest as the youthful Beck.

Derek McLane's set of Vigeland's studio is very well done and the transition technique used to switch to a drawing room in Ibsen's home is nicely handled. Lighting by David Lander is strong, the effects helping to add extra layers to the story, while being especially atmospheric in the aforementioned studio.

A powerful piece about being remembered and the hurts one incurs and inflects as they struggle to get to the top, Posterity is first rate theatre from the first spoken word to the last.

Featuring: Mickey Theis (Anfinn Beck), Dale Soules (Greta Bergstrom), Hamish Linklater (Gustav Vigeland), Henry Stram (Sophus Larpent), John Noble (Henrik Ibsen).

written and directed by Doug Wright

Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Susan Hilferty
Lights: David Lander
Original Music & Sound: David Van Tieghem
Casting: Telsey + Company, William Cantler, CSA
Dialects: Deborah Hecht
Press: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Production Stage Manager: Samantha Watson
Production Manager: Michael Wade
Assistant Stage Manager: Danny Maly

Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, one intermission
Closed: April 5, 2015

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