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Theater Review: Elling

Apollo & Dionysus:
Rooming Together

[1]Kjell Bjarne startles awake in a dorm-like room, jumps out of bed and looks around for a suspected presence, eventually finding Elling in the wardrobe.  Exiting the closet, this new arrival attempts to conceal a notebook and explains that he moved in while the other man slept.  After they share names, Kjell asks Elling, “What are you here for?”

The conversation that follows reveals their location–a state psychiatric hospital in Oslo–and their very different natures.  They find commonality in not having any need to be there and display profound differences in their descriptions of how they came to be committed.

Elling:  The government generously supplies places – – for people who are in a – – hectic phase in their lives.  After some coercion I accepted.

Kjell:  I was jumped on by six policemen, tied up in a strait-jacket, thrown in the back of a paddy wagon and beaten unconscious.

Elling, constrained in body, thought and deed, can barely abide Kjell Bjarne, impulsive, careless and slovenly dressed.  Flash forward two years: they find themselves on the way to a new life in a government-financed apartment, supervised by Frank, a cigarette-smoking social worker assigned to help them navigate re-entry into the real world.

The plot of Elling [2] focuses on their challenges.  Elling must overcome his agoraphobia to leave the house and Kjell Bjarne must act appropriately despite his obsession with bedding a woman.  Their case manager, a thorn in their collective side, threatens rehospitalization when they falter at the beginning.  Later Elling comes to rely on him for help when a crisis in Kjell’s new relationship sends his friend to bed for four days.  Ultimately, Frank declares the roommates normal for doing what Elling fears qualifies them for recommitment.

But the real action lies in the way that both Denis O’Hare as Elling and Brendan Fraser as Kjell Bjarne inhabit the bodies of their characters, bringing these unlikely roommates to life.  In the course of the play, the audience learns that Elling’s hospitalization followed the death of his possessive mother, with whom he was Oedipally close, and that Kjell Bjarne frequently carried his drunk mother to bed.

Their psychological ticks align perfectly with their histories, lending credibility to all the action and conflict that provide the play’s drama.  Exceptionally entertaining, at times bordering on the vaudevillian, Elling delights as well with poignant moments and brilliant dialog:

Kjell:  The government sent me to a special school, where they only taught idiots.

Alfons (the poet):  My parents sent me to a special school, where only idiots taught.

Unfortunately, New York’s theater-going public didn’t seem to get the joke or appreciate the broader references.  Soon after the previews, the producers announced the play’s closing due to lackluster ticket sales, undoubtedly compromised further by the negative review of an all-too-influential drama critic who seems to have an aversion to psychologically challenging material.

The juxtaposition of the divergent personality types represented by Apollonian Elling and Dionysian Kjell Bjarne personifies the ancient mind-body split.  Apollo, sun god, associated with truth, rational thought and poetry, exists in contrast to that other son of Zeus, Dionysus (aka Bacchus), god of wine, who spreads ecstasy through intoxication and pursuit of primal pleasures.

Elling’s path to himself, barricaded by his mother’s restrictions and admonitions, leads through discovery of his inner poet, assisted by the lapsed writer Alfons (perfectly played by Richard Easton).  But Elling would never have ventured outside without Kjell’s insistent drive to engage with a woman.  When that opportunity lands outside their apartment door and Kjell automatically assumes a caretaking role with her, Elling goes into a jealous rage that speaks volumes about his mother’s reactions to him and impels him on a quest of his own that leads to a poetry reading.

Kjell Bjarne, the epitome of pure id, raised by a woman enslaved to Bacchus, fights the excessively rational constraints imposed by Elling but also learns from them.  Each man functions better by virtue of his contact with the other.

Flesh and blood examples of the dangers of extremism in any direction, the characters of Elling and Kjell Bjarne have much to teach viewers courageous enough to find bits of themselves in both the uptight poet and his guileless sidekick.  Normality, however defined, must surely depend on living at peace with all aspects of oneself.