The Seventh Seal play tempts fate and wins
Death has played badminton against a physics professor; Battleship, Clue, Twister and electric football against Bill and Ted; gin rummy against Nat Ackerman; cards against Nick Shadow; rock-paper-scissors in the Sims; and Scrabble with Dogbert.
Death’s original game, though, was chess, played against returning crusader Antonius Block. Block played not to avoid the inevitable. Instead, he wanted time to find an answer to his haunting question: where is God, in light of suffering in the human condition?
In Jennifer Capraru’s stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Death returns to his — or in this case her — original game of choice. Capraru generally remains faithful to the plot and mood of the 1957 art house hit, and with good reason — the meditation on death, the meaning of life, and faith is one of the most beloved cinematic masterpieces ever.
Bringing a work from screen to stage takes drive and imagination, and it rarely happens well without a large budget to replace the vividness of camera and editing work. One might even say, it would take a chess game against Fate to succeed.
Capraru defies the odds with this small miracle. The production is as inventive as it is fresh, and the actors and crew — all university students — go forth with gusto and passion. Changes, such as replacing baby Mikael with a small glowing orb, are validated and come off as meaningful choices, owing to an attitude of self-acceptance towards the limitations of the stage.
Even upon entering the theatre, the audience is aware that this is a different kind of production. Taking a feather from immersive theatre (i.e. Sleep No More), the audience is led towards the stage and its ring of seats while characters romp among the theatre’s original seats as a makeshift hillside. Contained in a small area, the audience watches death make off with a scampering peasant and is immersed in darkness. At last, the famed chess match starts. Only then does the audience take its seats.
The play is masterfully performed in the round, every moment spotted with perfect lighting and sound. Simple props serve as the only setting save for the painting of a labyrinth on the stage floor. Scenes from the film are transformed into vignettes that take place as the actors cross the central circle. This allows for a constant movement, and the production stays fluid and fast. Excellent choreography results in gripping stage fights, giddy burlesque and creepy religious fervour.
The ensemble cast weaves as tightly together as the threads of a medieval tapestry. Characters are distinct with layered personalities, but shine best in their interactions with each other. Antonious Block (Marc Antoine Kelertas) carries himself with dignity, though his heavy existentialist burden weighs down his every move and word, as if he’s read a little too much Sartre and Camus. His squire Jöns (Matt Dawson) is as complex; he seems benign, delighting in simple pleasures, only to turn violent with slight provocation. The traveling actors Jof, Mia and Skat are lovable, and the actors who play them (Greg Walker, Emily Tognet, and Christian Jadah respectively) give earthy and physical performances of a high calibre. Plog’s wife wiggles and giggles like Marilyn Monroe as she watches her husband and Skat come to blows over her. Death is a split personality, with opaquely veiled men and women who dance some victims to their end while seizing others.
Productions such as this make it clear that some of the best theatre to be seen in Montreal is found at the universities. The entire production gives a taste how exciting and bold theatre can be at all levels of professionalism. ■
The Concordia Theatre Department’s The Seventh Seal plays at the D.B. Clarke Theatre (1455 De Maisonneuve, Hall Building) to Oct. 21, 8 p.m., Oct. 20-21 2 p.m., $10/$5 students