Festen, now playing at 12th Avenue Arts, makes me want to talk about structural choices and details the way my friend's uncles used to talk about classic cars. But because that kind of talk can lead to the shotgunning of Busch Lights and the air-guitaring of every song on Lynyrd Skynyrd's Second Helping, I'll just use my own language to extol this production's virtues.
Based on Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 film The Celebration, the play is about power. It's about the impossibility and yet the necessity of speaking truth to power, even and especially in the house of power. It's a simple setup: A family gets together to celebrate Daddy Warbucks's birthday. The golden child takes an emotional dump in the family punch by revealing the family's dirtiest secrets. Then an hour passes without intermission and you're glad for it.
Every detail embodies the play's theme. The play's movement from night into morning, the ghostly stage setting—even the choice to use white wicker chairs seems meaningful. They look like chairs, but really they're the soulless husks of love seats. That's a pretty good metaphor for the family, and the father in particular.
Speaking of the paterfamilias, Helge ("Hell") is played with great nuance and intelligence by Bradford Farwell. He understands, as only the darkest and truest wielders of power can, that the knowledge of when to use power is more powerful than the raw stuff of power. He raises his voice with his son only in one-on-one conversations, for instance. In public he prefers glancing blows, discrediting his son's story by making constant references to his history of dependency and mental-health issues.
The acting is solid across the board, but particularly good in the supporting roles. Conner Neddersen plays Poul, a depressive emo guy who provides some much needed comic relief. The wife, Else (Stranger Genius Amy Thone), stands like a crowbar in the corner of the room for most of the performance, stepping in only a few times to reveal herself to be the absent mother figure you assume she is. But by the end of the play, she becomes Chekhov's gun. I've never seen so much emotional information conveyed in a glare and an exit stage right in my life, and I was sitting eight rows back.
The play was adapted from the finest specimen of the Dogme 95 school of constrained filmmaking, but don't run out to the video store. You need to see this thing on the stage. When the son stands up at the big family dinner and reveals his secret, you want to be there. You want to be trapped in that seat, squirming, wondering who's going to pick up their silver spoon first.