Adaptation offers unique audience experience

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Three sets of actors represent the same couple throughout the play. // via facebook.com

For his latest project, Flemish director Ivo van Hove has deftly reworked Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 film, “Scenes from a Marriage,” lending it stylistic ambition rarely seen on stage.

The show follows Marianne and Johan through their marital bliss, their self-destructive tendencies and their ultimate peace and lovemaking. Van Hove has been true to the film’s lengthy runtime — the play runs for three and a half hours, with only one short intermission.

In this particular rendition of “Scenes from a Marriage,” three pairs of actors play Marianne and Johan. Each couple portrays a different period in the relationship, creating the sense that, as the characters grow older, they literally become different people. In no way does this cause the show to lose any of its emotional impact. Anyone could be a dependent and demanding Marianne or a restless and self-conscious Johan — the dynamic storyline of a crumbling marriage remains just as effective, regardless of who takes on the roles.

Due to the myriad of acting styles put to the stage, one can feel that the character arcs are disjointed and misdirected. Though this style is poetic, certain elements of the initial story unfortunately get lost because of the differences between actors.

The show is staged in a way unlike anything else in New York right now. In the first half, the theater is sectioned off into three separate stages, where viewers are randomly separated, with each stage acting as a different period in the characters’ lives. During silences, viewers will hear the loudest parts of scenes performed on other stages. This can at first feel sloppy, yet there is a beauty to hearing the voices of future and past versions of the characters at the same time. If the other scenes heard represent the thoughts of the couple, it makes sense that they would be scattered.

After a 30-minute intermission, the audience comes back to a completely new seating arrangement. Patrons are seated in the round, and all three Mariannes and all three Johans play their scenes out in unison. To hear the voices of three women screaming at their husbands, all of whom are drunkenly lolling about on the floor, all at once, is incredibly harrowing. To lighten the mood, van Hove adds moments of meta theatricality. Examples of this include Marianne ordering herself three cabs and all three couples mixing pairs and making out at the same time.

The conceit of the three couples is a large part of the sizeable draw for this show, and it is by no means a gimmick. It adds new meaning to Bergman’s film, which is already formally ambitious in its own right. Van Hove’s “Scenes from a Marriage” is something to behold — the rare adaptation that both respects and improves upon its source.

“Scenes from a Marriage” is playing at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth Street, through Oct. 29.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Oct. 15 print edition. Email Blair Simmons at [email protected]