Feeling strangely hearty and unbruised? Let Ivo van Hove and the pugilist-dramatists of Amsterdam's Toneelgroep take care of that for you. For the next few days, Van Hove—best known stateside for his traumatized expressionist reclamations of Hedda Gabler, A Streetcar Named Desire, and last season's The Little Foxes—is presenting his vivisected version of that masterpiece of anomie, Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers. It is not for the faint of heart, the weak of stomach, or the impatient-with-a-wordless-twenty-minute-burial-ritual-conducted-to-the-folk-melody-"I'll Fly Away"-on-infinite-loop. This is one of van Hove's more audience-unfriendly pieces (which is saying something), and it's more an analysis of its own stripped-down Lucite stylings than a full-blooded adaptation of Bergman's film. But the bones of the original story remain: Two troubled sisters, the reckless coquette Maria (Halina Reijn) and the brittle self-cutter Karin (Janni Goslinga), gather to tend to their dying sister Agnes (Chris Nietvelt), a video artist struggled with mother issues.
As onscreen, the chief concerns here are spiritual isolation, loneliness, and the stubborn improbability of true human fellowship—unless, like sisters' uncomplaining domestic Anna (Karina Smulders), one remains gifted with the God delusion and a reflex for warmth. (Smulders keeps her eyes downcast throughout the show, except for one, terrifying moment, when her gaze finds heaven, and a look of blissful madness breaks suddenly over her neutral features.) Van Hove chops the stage in two with Plexiglas, putting Agnes's studio/death chamber up front for the beginning of the show and treating us to a boldly unpoetic dissolution of a human body. This version of Agnes transforms her death into art, but this brings her no closer to the family she never fully knew, the family that never fully knew her. The tense reminiscences and sotto voce battles-of-will staged by Bergman are slapped sideways and turned inside out by Van Hove, who never misses a chance to convert inner turmoil into acts of physical violence. (Don't expect any of those ghostly visitations—Ingmar's misty twilight of irreality has been replaced with Ivo's triage-chamber fluorescence, which is hard on apparitions that don't arrive in a playable digital-video format.)
The hard smacks and wrestling matches that ensue are van Hove trademarks, and they're not ineffective. (The terrifyingly sterile environment, with its reversible sheets and pitiless nonstick surfaces, is cleaned of shit and blood and paint with ruthless efficiency.) Nietvelt is as brave and electrifying as actresses come, and her protracted death spasm—a full-body Rorschach blot—is one of the more disturbing things I've ever seen on stage. And yet, somewhere amidst all the Christly posing, body blows and uterine imagery, we lose some of the sense of these women as sisters. Their distance from each other becomes our distance from the play. As Agnes ends up on the flip side of the plexiglass, and we're left with the (nominally) living in the foreground, our attachment to the proceedings on stage becomes dangerously attenuated, thins to a fiber, and finally snaps. I'm can't imagine Van Hove, who's gone to trouble of creating such a strenuously distressing show, would want to let us off so easy.
Cries and Whispers is at BAM's Harvey theater until October 29.