RENSSELAER — The theater department of Rensselaer Central High School is spending this weekend acting out Director Bernard Sell’s stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic film, “The Seventh Seal.”
The final performance will be 7 p.m. Nov. 16 in the RCHS auditorium. Tickets are $7 per person.
Sell has been planning the production, in one form or another, for quite some time.
“It’s been in the idea popper for a while,” he said with a laugh, shortly before one of the final dress rehearsals this week.
Once he got his hands on a copy of the film’s script, it was only a matter of time before he began thinking about how to adapt it for the stage.
“I was toying around on the internet,” Sell said. “I found a script for it for my AP Literature course. And then I thought, ‘You know what? We could do this. We could do this for the play. There’s no reason we couldn’t.’”
The production uses fairly minimalistic sets, with moveable painted backgrounds on wheels and relatively simple props and costumes.
“I’ve always loved the film, and I was really kind of inspired by the look of the film, as well, and I thought, ‘You know what? We could paint these,’” Sell said.
He hesitated before showing his cast the film itself, opting to first let them find their own mental pictures and interpretations.
“The kids have really responded to it,” he said of showing them the film. “I didn’t do it right away because I wanted them to establish their own characters first. And I knew that, you know, they’re never going to have heard of this. So there’s no danger of contaminating the pool.”
As some may know already, the movie — and now the play — mainly concerns the tale of a medieval knight confronted with a living manifestation of Death, who allows him to fight to prolong his life with a game of chess. This game continues throughout a narrative where other characters ponder the meaning of death, life and existence itself.
“The whole play, the whole movie, is basically a chess game,” Sell said. “Literally and figuratively, they’re playing chess against each other.”
The director’s biggest challenge was getting his young and energetic cast to slow down and focus on the deeper themes of a play which, like the film, is “all about existential dread.”
The story also features some surprising moments of levity, but even this is tainted by an atmosphere of morbid anxiety. For Sell, the key to capturing the mood of the story came by making his young actors take their time during even the simple and quiet moments.
One of the things that may first occur to the audience during the opening scenes is how few lines there are and how slowly the characters move, sometimes appearing frozen in place on the barren stage.
“There’s a pacing to this that is kind of meditative and slow and not really attuned to an ADHD generation, to pick on them,” he said of his young cast. “And I tell them this, too. It’s just like, ‘You’ve got to space this out. You’ve got to let this breathe a little bit. Give us time to think about what we just saw because they’re definitely going to be thinking about it.’”
This presents its own challenges, as the kids must make relatively subtle emotions play out to a large live audience.
“With theater, everything has to be so large so that the people 30 rows out can easily see it,” Sell said. “But Bergman’s film is very intimate, and so much turns on facial expression that you can’t see from here, so we tried to keep the mood. And there’s things that we can do, especially with lighting and sound effects.”
In any case, Sell hopes the audience that sees “The Seventh Seal” this weekend will enjoy the opportunity to experience something a little different than to what they may be accustomed.
“I like to do a variety of plays, not just the same thing every year,” he said.