Reviews

Ibsen’s Ghost ****

By: David Sheward

April 11, 2024: Playwright, performer and drag legend Charles Busch is back and Henrik Ibsen’s got him. This may seem like an unlikely pairing, but Ibsen’s Ghost, Busch’s latest parody-romp ranks with his funniest efforts. Previously Busch has written delightfully campy send-ups of Hollywood movies and lavish costume spectacles with himself as the leading lady, inspired by the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn. Here he follows the great ladies of the stage who starred in Ibsen’s dramas such as Eva La Gallienne, Alla Nazimova, Glenda Jackson, Janet McTeer, Jessica Chastain, and yes Talulah Bankhead (who played Hedda Gabler on TV). 

Charles Busch

By: David Sheward

April 11, 2024: Playwright, performer and drag legend Charles Busch is back and Henrik Ibsen’s got him. This may seem like an unlikely pairing, but Ibsen’s Ghost, Busch’s latest parody-romp ranks with his funniest efforts. Previously Busch has written delightfully campy send-ups of Hollywood movies and lavish costume spectacles with himself as the leading lady, inspired by the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn. Here he follows the great ladies of the stage who starred in Ibsen’s dramas such as Eva La Gallienne, Alla Nazimova, Glenda Jackson, Janet McTeer, Jessica Chastain, and yes Talulah Bankhead (who played Hedda Gabler on TV). 

Charles Busch, Jen Cody, Christopher Borg, Thomas Gibson, Jennifer Van Dyck and Judy Kaye .

Presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, this “Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy” imagines the titanically influential Norwegian dramatist’s widow Suzannah (Busch in high melodramatic style) embroiled in a catfight with one of Ibsen’s former female proteges who threatens to publish her salacious diary, complete with steamy details of their scandalous relationship. What’s even worse, the diarist Hanna Solberg (a riotously imperious Jennifer Van Dyck) purports to being the inspiration for the proto-feminist heroine Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’ House, a role to which Suzannahlays claim.

There are satiric allusions to additional Ibsen works in Busch’s zany script, played in Shoko Kambara’s elegant 19th century set like one of the master’s domestic dramas. Suzannah theatrically burns old letters like the title character in Hedda Gabler. A mysterious sailor (the virile Thomas Gibson) appears to sweep Suzannah off her feet as in The Lady from the Sea. In an echo of Ghosts, a pair of lovers recreates a tryst from an earlier generation. Even the Rat Wife from Peer Gynt makes a hilarious appearance, in the person of Christopher Borg who doubles as Ibsen’s publisher who is willing to print Solberg’s memoir.

Christopher Borg and Charles Busch.

Also on hand are Judy Kaye commanding as Suzannah’s competitive step-mother, herself a prolific writer, and Jen Cody, gaining considerable comic mileage out of the maid Gerda’s physical affliction and erotic impulses. She reacts with sexual excitement at every mention of a lover’s name, much like the horses whinnying at every mention of Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein

Even if you are not an Ibsen scholar or connoisseur of drag, the goings-on are must-see.  Busch invests every line with a an appropriate stagey gesture or expression. He is simultaneously winking at the audience and playing the character, an impressive double act. Director Carl Andress balances the outrageous buffoonery with empathy so that these cliched roles have at least a semblance of verisimilitude. And what would a Charles Busch play be without extravagant costumes which Gregory Gale has gorgeously designed—and some sumptuous hats as well. Halfway between this season’s smashing revival of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and Cole Escola’s totally insane Oh, Mary!, Ibsen’s Ghost is the perfect combination of drag and drama.

Jennifer Van Dyck and Charles Busch.

Ibsen’s Ghost ****
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 St., NYC.  59e59.org.
March 14—April 14, 2024
Running time: one hour and 45 mins. including intermission
Photography: James Leynse

Thomas Gibson & Charles Busch.
Thomas Gibson, Christopher Borg and Charles Busch.