Henrik Ibsen is no stranger to creative reinterpretation. Thanks in part to an influx of postmodern imports (virtually a staple at BAM's Next Wave Festival), the Norwegian master is gradually shucking off the stuffy images of dollhouses and slamming doors. And now the still-wet-behind-the-ears Rebel Theater is getting in on the action, opening its inaugural season with a modern adaptation of Ibsen's Ghosts.
Director-choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj transports Ghosts from the Norwegian fjords to the island of Jamaica, setting it in the early 1980s. Maharaj retains much of Ibsen's original tale of family deceit and moral decay beneath a pristine Victorian veneer. Victoria Andrews (Sharon Tshai King), a widow who endured a philandering husband for the sake of propriety, discovers that her son Barrington (Edward Davis) has inherited more than just money from his decadent father. Soon it becomes clear that Ibsen's once-shocking discussion of syphilis has been replaced by AIDS.
By setting the play in Jamaica, and by paying careful attention to ethnic casting, Maharaj lays colonial and racial oppression on top of Ghost's already repressive social hierarchies. But too often his directorial concepts get in the way: Maharaj bogs down his production with African drumming, Jamaican patois, and a chorus of street orphans — a weight that the text can't always support.
Ghosts is most successful when it focuses on Ibsen's drawing-room drama rather than Maharaj's sometimes forced constructs, allowing the actors to get down to business and actually do the play. There are some choice sparring matches between Pastor Mattison (Mickey Ryan) and the widow Andrews, and the cast often walks the fine line Ibsen draws between high drama and histrionics. Unfortunately, by the time Act 3 rolls around, Ghosts, like the sickly Barrington, falls ill to a deadly disease: melodrama.
Presented by Rebel Theater at the Abrons Arts Center, Henry Street Settlement, 466 Grand St., NYC. Oct. 5-15. Tue.-Sat., 7 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m. (212) 726-1389, ext. 2, or www.rebeltheater.org.