Something's rotten in Denmark: director Jonathan Berry on 'Festen'

May 25, 2011

 

Jonathan Berry was the third director Steep Theatre head Peter Moore approached to bring David Eldridge’s Festen to fruition. The first person loved it but took on another, even more attractive play, the second one hated it, and Berry—it took a second read for him to love it.

Why? Well, it is about incest. Festen the Play dramatizes Festen the Film, released in 1998—the first work produced after the Dogme 95 manifesto. Set in Denmark, both film and play focus on the 60th-birthday party of Helge, a wealthy restaurateur whose oldest daughter recently committed suicide. Yet everyone is surreally jolly. The single most horrifying thing about Berry’s exquisitely crafted production is its veneer of ordinariness.

“It’s a weird play to market,” says Berry, 36. “To encourage people who are trying to chose between sitting out on the deck and barbecuing or coming to this play, it’s just a weird pitch. We’re thrilled that people have found an enthusiastic response.”

How did he approach the sketchy subject? “The important thing for me was to find a way to ground the characters, particularly the patriarch, in recognizable human behavior. I’m a believer that people do monstrous things, but I don’t believe that people are monsters.” It wasn’t easy, though, reconciling the actors to their roles. Berry, Melissa Riemer (who plays the mother), and Norm Woodel (the father) ended up creating backstories that made their characters’ selfish choices more palatable. And Berry had to convince Kevin Stark, the actor who sensitively underplays damaged oldest son Christian, not to “push back against Helge” in a crucial scene.

“When we were casting,” says Berry, “I compared Christian to Hamlet. You needed to see there were some demons there, but then also, this person is being urged to action through forces he doesn’t necessarily understand. He’s stepping into a prize fight when he’s not at prize-fighting capacity.”

And the cinematic source? “The play just feels like a David Lynch movie to me,” says Berry. “There’s that sort of weirdness.” He worked extensively with “genius” lighting designer Sarah Hughey to create a cinematic look. One of the effects they achieved, he says, comes “when the father walks in, all you see is his face floating between the two pillars—it’s my attempt at a theatrical ‘close-up.’” Berry also talks about the importance of the Steep space. “It’s the shape of a tennis court, or an arena almost. I wanted that kind of gallery focus as opposed to something on a proscenium, where you can distance yourself from it and you’re just looking at a picture box.”

Berryalso chose to use English accents (the 2006 Broadway production employed American accents). “I think there’s a way that an American audience responds to British people,” he says, “that ties in with wealth representing a lack of responsibility. One of the most tragic television events of the last 15 years was watching Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton in The Simple Life. You just see these adults behaving with completely no responsibility. And the characters in Festenhave grown up remarkably privileged. The consequences of actions is a theme in the play—and these are people who haven’t had to deal with that.”

Berry’s next projects are Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek for Eclipse Theatre, then the musical comedy They’re Playing Our Song with Fox Valley Repertory. (“A little bit of Neil Simon and Marvin Hamlisch to cleanse the palate after a pretty intense summer,” he says.) Though Berry says that “directing is about trying to keep control of all the balls at the same time,” the desired result, in his mind, is that “what I’m doing disappears, and all that happens is that the audience sits there and experiences the story.”