Perhaps it was in some secret collaboration with this year’s early, eager winter winds, but the artistic legacy of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has arrived in Chicago for the month, casting a bracing Scandinavian gloss on October. In fortuitous conjunction with the Chicago International Film Festival’s spotlight on Scandinavian cinema (covering contemporary fiction, non-fiction, shorts and classics, including, remarkably, Bergman’s stunning final (1982) feature film, Fanny & Alexander), Chicago’s Akvavit Theatre continues on its distinct series of productions of contemporary Nordic drama, offering a new English translation and U.S. premiere of Lucas Svensson’s Frozen on the Square (1982).

"Written and first produced in 2005 (the year 1982 in the title invokes the original film and cinematic titling conventions), Svensson's slightly parodic and somewhat insular “existential comedy” is an imaginative take on the plight of four actors who were lucky enough to have worked on the set of Bergman’s autobiographical masterpiece. Akvavit’s production — the first in the U.S., directed by the prolific Breahan Eve Pausch and translated by Chad Eric Bergman (whose interpretation also infuses the stage design) — thus offers an ekphrastic redoubling of the aesthetic and cultural reception that begins with Ingmar Bergman’s life and career, and is re-interpreted as part of Sweden’s broader film history in the context of its growth vis à vis that of the United States.


Alexander's life reorganized
In Frozen on the Square, the details of Alexander’s life are reorganized across different characters, while familiar elements of the film’s sets reappear transformed for the stage. The time is the early 1980s and the mood is “frozen” at a standstill, caught in dialectical tension between past and future, home and abroad, becoming parents, or like Susann (Bergen Anderson), deciding that “life has no future.” America has “just selected a B-rate actor to be president” and the deregulation of global markets has created a new sense of social and economic mobility. But David (Andrew Fortman), whose father teaches at Yale and has connections in New York, can’t seem to firmly locate himself on either side of the Atlantic, parenthood or even in terms of his sexuality. He finds himself in unnecessary conflicts with everyone, unable to care fully for his wife nor for his wants-to-be-more-than-friend Ben (Jordan Scott Johnson). All of this runs quickly together like an amusement park ride to the sounds of 80’s Brit pop, radio commentary on the San Francisco gay scene, and a montage of Sven’s (Dan Wilson) English-language impersonations of Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton.
Wilson lends a particularly noteworthy, playful and energetic performance to the role of Sven, an extra who befriends David and Susann. Sound and lighting design (Jeffrey Levin, Maggie Fullilove-Nugent) converge in a charming moment that alleviates the weight of the drama with an evocative touch involving a 1983 hit single and some disco lights.

The strength of this production, as with every Akvavit interpretation, lies in the innovative, minimalist montage of sets and audiovisual design that seems to translate the marvel of the world, at least from one passing point of view, in all its haunting and structural complexity without losing or denying any of its momentary delights.
If the larger significance of bringing a 1980’s Swedish play to life on today’s American stage might still seem obscure (the additional intertextual appeal of the theatrical release of Gone Girl and the David Bowie exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art notwithstanding), one can recall the ways in which we might still be continuing to live out the economic and political consequences of the 1980s: a decade which still captures an aesthetic coherence with its music (much like the hold the ghosts of Bergman’s 1982 feature have on Alexander and the spirit of the director himself on subsequent theatrical and cinematic production). Bergman is back, Bowie is here, and the time is ripe for deep reflection on the significance of the hit television series Dallas (1978-1991) — for this production as much as for the original film. In the words of Helena Ekdahl as she recites Strindberg to her grandson, “everything is possible and probable;” and while we should be “happy while we are happy” with the little worlds we (re)make in miniature (films, theatre and television), ei blot til lyst.

Further insight into the convergence of these transmedial, socio-historical contexts is available in the 90-minute performance that runs Thursdays through Sundays until November 9, 2014 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Keen lovers of Nordicana will want to buy tickets now for the not-to-be-missed evening of October 30, which will accompany original Aquavit cocktail tastings and lively, exclusive discussions with director Breahan Eve Pausch and the company’s artistic director, Chad Eric Bergman, PhD., professor of theatre and performance studies at North Park University.

By Shannon Foskett