'Egil's Saga' is a powerful work

by Steve Kantor | 5/17/02 5:00am

"Let me read your unspoken words," repeats Asgerd (Katia Asche '04), with increasing frequency as Kristjan Thorgeirsson's adaptation of "Egil's Saga, Depictions of a Viking Poet," makes its way through eight episodic sections. Indeed, the play's impact resides in what remains unsaid -- like a Hemingway novel, the emotional intensity is delivered between the lines. Through concentrated choreography, chilling string accompaniment and a set of deceptively simple appearance, Thorgeirsson's senior fellowship project is as mysterious and powerful as the sea that haunts its central character.

In the program, Thorgeirsson describes the Sagas as nonlinear "episodes that the reader is asked to piece together to form a whole." If this makes reading difficult, it presents an even greater challenge in its adaptation to the stage, one that Thorgeirsson as director takes on early in "Egil's Saga." In what may be the play's only lighthearted moment, the two narrators, Poetry (Anshu Wahi '02) and Memory (Caitlin McNally '03) deliver rapid-fire exposition, revealing the labyrinthine complexity of the Sagas with tongue-twisting aplomb.

This complexity is manifested in Egil himself, whose divided personalities are portrayed simultaneously by Ben Weaver '03 and Ivan Grant '04. The two actors are different sides of the same coin, as Weaver embodies violence/ugliness while Grant represents sexuality/magic. In a triumph of physicality, Weaver and Grant illuminate their common character like twin suns.

One constant throughout the play is Egil's pain. Filial bonds are strained as his brother Thorolf (Caz Liske '04) weds Asgerd, their mutual love. Waves of emotion beat upon Egil's stoic exterior as he withdraws into a brooding drinking binge at his brothers' wedding party. There, he is targeted for seduction by the smoldering Queen Gunnhild (Therese Olson GRLS) who, spurned by the warrior poet, conspires to poison him. In a drunken rage, Egil recites a poem that shatters his poisoned cup and the queen dies.

Internalizing his anguish, Egil and Thorolf are called to war, and in a spectacularly choreographed battle scene, Thorolf is slain. Liske, Weaver and Grant clash blades furiously until Liske is left alone onstage, shadow-battling in a moment that is both balletic and savage. His death is one of dignity and gravity.

After his brother's death, Egil channels his anguish into rage, embarking on a killing spree without a seeming end to his bloodlust. Weaver and Grant again work with impressive cohesion, juggling a scythe between them as they lay vengeance upon their victims, portrayed courageously by Wahi and McNally. Here and throughout the play, the string quartet contributes to the intensity both subtly and effectively.

Egil becomes melancholy, returning to Asgerd to tell her of Thorolf's death and take responsibility for her welfare. In a complicated play of light and shadow, Egil's silouette surrounds Asgerd's. Lighting the characters thus reveals more than appears in the characters' words alone, an effect with which set and lighting designer Sabrina Peric '03 reveals her talent in using the play's production design as part of the performance itself. Her set -- an angled stage with hidden tables, trapdoors and partitions -- mirrors and intensifies Egil's struggle to maintain a strong exterior while wrestling with deep suffering.

Grief temporarily gets the better of Egil, who sequesters himself and refuses food, hoping to die. His daughter Thorgerd, played with charming boyishness by Nicole Yokum '05, breaks Egil's fast, thwarting his suicide. Though her on-stage appearance comes late in the play, Yokum's energetic performance provides a valuable counterpoint to Egil's deepening depression.

Until this point in the play, Thorgeirsson himself remains offstage, revealed to the audience through his potent choreography. Now, he enters as a third Egil, fire/death, embodying the figure at the end of his life, blind, deaf and infirm yet still moved by strong passions. Thorgeirsson delivers a soliloquy that is as rich in substance as it is lyrical in delivery. Beginning and ending in Icelandic, this last episode anchors "Egil's Saga" in its 13th-century origins while reaffirming that the emotional content of the play lies not in its words alone, but in the totality of its performance.

"Egil's Saga" is being performed tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m. in the Hopkins Center's Moore Theater.