Marriage and manipulation in American Players’ ‘Creditors’
Three of its best actors tear each other to pieces
If you’re watching carefully, Jim DeVita almost tips his hand in the opening moment of American Players Theatre’s production of “Creditors” (playing through Nov. 19 at the Touchstone Theater). His character, the nattily dressed Gustav, is staring at the back of the shaggy and frail artist/sculptor Adolph (Marcus Truschinski), and oh, the look he gives him. It’s a carefully controlled and dangerous mix of curiosity, resentment and wonder, like a cat that’s contemplating the various ways he’s going to disembowel and devour the mouse he’s just spotted. In a minute, Adolph is going to begin praising Gustav as the mentor who’s given his work new meaning and spark; the truth is, he has no idea what’s about to happen to him.
Taut manipulation is the name of the game in August Strindberg’s play, a quality that makes it both a nice fit for the closer confines of the Touchstone and an even better fit for the cast director Maria Aitken expertly gets to play with here. In a play where a shrewdly sowed hint of doubt and uncertainty grows to Herculean proportions in a heartbeat, having DeVita, Truschinski and Tracy Michelle Arnold set against each other leads to no shortage of fascinating dramatic duels.
Arnold plays Tekla, Adolph’s slightly older, free-spirited and frothy wife. Their marriage is already ripe for string-pulling: She playfully calls him “little brother” (Say it with us: double ick) and enjoys trying to attract the attention of other younger men. The wildly uneven power dynamic between them is a festering problem, and that’s before Gustav, pinballing his moods between sympathetic and aggressive and back again, sets to worsening it.
In close one-on-one conversations–the three actors don’t appear on stage together until late in the play–the tension escalates quickly.
Strindberg stacks the deck in support of his often disturbing nihilist and misogynistic worldview–this, after all, is a guy who once said, “If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t get married.” Adolph is weak physically (he hobbles around on a crutch) and emotionally (he shifts and questions his opinions and tastes at the slightest nudge), making him an easy mark for anyone with a stronger force of personality, a description that includes both Gustav and Tekla. Give Arnold credit for making the most out of a role that puts her at a constant disadvantage. Similarly, it’d be easy for the audience to view Adolph with head-shaking contempt, but Truschinski makes sure we stay at least partially on his side.
“You never do know what a person’s like until you’re married to them,” Gustav muses to Adolph at one point. DeVita’s sneering and cocky performance recalls the work he did as Valmont–another character with a dubious view of male-female relationships–in [APT’s 2013 production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,”] but without the redemptive character arc.
In the play’s final moments, Aitken tries to amp the aural metaphor she and sound designer Lindsay Jones have strung throughout the play by tossing in a couple of unexpected modern visual touches that don’t quite work, in part because they come completely out of leftfield–and they certainly don’t leaven the awkwardness of the play’s final scene. Fortunately, it’s the strength of the performances that lingers, like a leaden weight on a troubled, mistrustful mind.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.
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