10 days ago, I was completely unaware that an Icelandic musical had established a beachhead in one of Off-Broadway’s larger theatres. To be honest, I’d never given much thought to Icelandic theatre, let alone their musicals. So when I spotted an online Village Voice story about the show’s musical score and gave it a skim, that alone was enough to make me want to see this rara avis. So I spent Saturday afternoon, a beautiful August afternoon, in the dark at the Minetta Lane. But there’s actually a slew of other reasons why I went.
RARITY As someone who prides himself on obscure knowledge and eccentric experiences, I am fairly (but not absolutely) certain that there have not been major productions of Icelandic musicals before in New York, or even the United States. I remember a Polish musical making it to Broadway, although I didn’t see Metro, and there was a Dutch musical of Cyrano, but I daresay a piece of Icelandic musical theatre making its world premiere in New York is most likely a first. Please contradict me if you’re able.
NAME Let’s face it, it’s pretty hard to resist a title like The Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter. At least it is for me. While it’s not as mellifluous as Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You In The Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad and doesn’t approach the monumental length of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, I wanted to catch it before the musical buffs start calling it simply Ragnar or Elbow, shortened like How To Succeed or Forum. Just mentioning that I was going to it genuinely startled some people and I suspect the title will have that effect among the uninitiated for some time.
ICELAND I’ve actually been to Iceland. Not in a “quick stopover thanks to cheap flights via Icelandair on the way to Europe” way, but a two week stay. Mind you, I was 15 and it was a Boy Scout trip, but Iceland was the first foreign country I ever visited – I hadn’t even been to Canada when I went. I chose it precisely because I didn’t know anyone who had ever been there, passing up (if memory serves) alternate forays to Scotland and Jamaica. I went with so little preparation that I didn’t even know that the sun doesn’t set there in July. I climbed a (then dormant) volcano. It was all a discovery.
As a result, I’ve always followed news of the island country and thought it might give me an excuse to troop out some old knowledge. Without prompting, I explained to my wife, based solely on the title, that I knew the title character Ragnar’s father is named Agnar, given the patronymic naming that prevails in the country. Impressed? Incidentally, when I checked the website RagnarAgnarsson.com, I discovered that it belongs to a filmmaker, not to the show. For all I know, Ragnar Agnarsson could be the Icelandic equivalent of John Smith.
MUSIC I am well aware that there have been successful bands and performers out of Iceland, like Björk and Sigur Rós and The Sugarcubes, but to be honest, I’m not sure I’d recognize any of their music, only the swan dress, so perhaps this was a chance to acquaint myself with a certain rock style that had passed me by. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether the score by Ívar Páll Jónsson is representative of current tastes in Iceland or not. But now, it’s all I’ve got.
THEATRE Frame of reference, I realized as I watched, was something I lacked theatrically as well. While everyone I met in Iceland all those years ago spoke both English and Icelandic, that didn’t tell me a thing about what theatrical styles might be favored in this country of only 300,000 residents. Have they evolved their own aesthetic, do they lean toward America or England or Scandinavia or some other European region? Do they stage sagas? One show, I realized, wasn’t going to teach me that. But it was a reminder about how much of world theatre has passed me by, or that I have passed by.
It was interesting to note that the director Bergur Þór Ingólfsson directed the hit Icelandic production of Mary Poppins and producer Karl Pétur Jónsson was behind Icelandic productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). So maybe the cultural chasm isn’t all that wide. Of course, since the show is premiering in New York and not Reykjavik, we don’t actually know what the Icelandic public thinks of Ragnar. It could be an outlier there. Interesting strategy.
CAST Cady Huffman. Kate Shindle. What’s not to like? Those were the only two names I recognized when I looked the show up in the Theatrical Index. But it’s also great to see actors I’m not familiar with too, in this case the rest of the cast.
PLOT What appealed to me most about the plot its utter opacity. I’ve reached the point where it’s pretty difficult for me to see a show without some sense of what I’m in for. Save for my experiment a year ago at the New York International Fringe Festival, where I let someone I still have never met choose my itinerary, I have some manner of preconceived notion, however slight, about everything I see. What a joy to approach a show as a completely blank slate. For all the shows I go to with anticipation about the cast, the author, the director and so on, or with a vague sense of dread, I rarely feel the excitement of the utter unknown. Even with the fringe, I did read show synopses once I was given my marching orders. Perhaps what I felt was akin to what the folks are trying to do at the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre in London, though in some cases there, you may recognize the play as soon as it starts. In Elbow, everything was new.
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Basically, I saw The Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter so that I could practice what I preach. Admittedly cost and time are usually part of our decision making, and legitimate factors at that, but we are forever self-selecting our entertainment. Once in a while, it’s refreshing to go to something completely in the dark. For those of us in the business of the arts, it’s a reminder of the faith audiences place in us when we convince them to come to an event that doesn’t have famous names or a familiar title. It takes us outside of the bubble of professional connections and journalism and gossip that inform our own decisions on what to see and, at least until we’ve spent a little time taking it in, enables (or forces) us to be completely open about a show because we know so little.
Obviously I’ve been very careful not to say what I thought of the show, and nothing herein should be extrapolated out to as either endorsement or indictment. It will open at the end of the week, and then it will be difficult to experience the show as unaware as I did, as others declare their opinions for your consumption. After that, you’ll have to look for, perhaps, an Estonian epic or a Uruguayan musical when it lands on our shores for your own tabula rasa experience in the theatre.
As for me, I can just say that I’ve plunged rather unknowingly into two Icelandic adventures in my life and – you should pardon the allusion – how cool is that?