World Stages: International Theatre Festival- ‘Harmsaga’ at The Kennedy Center

The World Stages: International Theater Festival takes the center stage at The Kennedy Center, March 10-30, 2014 bringing together some of today’s most exciting theatrical visionaries presenting an unprecedented focus on theatre from around the globe. Twenty-two theatrical offerings from nineteen countries, and every continent except Antarctica, are represented in this theater Festival of dynamic stories examining contemporary issues and universal themes. Curated by Alicia Adams, Vice President, International Programming, thirteen fully staged productions will be featured including nine U.S. premieres, as well as four theater-focused installations, panel discussions, two staged readings, and two Directors forums.

The delights in this extraordinary assembling of theatrical treasures comprise World Stages: International Theater Festival 2014 – the Kennedy Center’s first theater-focused international festival!

Snorri Engilbertsson (Ragnar) and  Elma Stefanía gústsdóttir(Sigrún). Photo courtesy of EDDI.
Snorri Engilbertsson (Ragnar) and Elma Stefanía gústsdóttir(Sigrún). Photo courtesy of EDDI.

State of Shock – Review: Harmsaga

The best relationships are based on trust and honesty.

When love goes bad, there are no winners and few easy answers.

How can something, which was once so right, turn out to be so wrong? And, why is it as human beings, the people we love are most often the ones we hurt the most?

Harmsaga is the intense modern love story written by emerging Icelandic playwright, Mikael Torfason and directed by Una Thorleifsdóttir. A Theatre box-office success in Iceland, The National Theatre of Iceland presents the thrilling U.S. Premiere as part of The Kennedy Center’s World Stages: International Theatre Festival. The production was translated into English for the first time solely to perform before the English-speaking audiences for The Kennedy Center Theatre Festival.

What begins as an argument, turns into a growing contentious situation, and spirals out of control to a shocking conclusion.

The life of a once happy family (a young married couple with two small children) turns into a larger-than-life tragedy, exposing betrayed promises and devastating broken dreams.

Harmsaga discloses the vulnerability and desperation of a website manager/aspiring realtor, Ragnar (Snorri Engilbertsson) and law-student Sigrún (Elma Stefanía Ágústsdóttir), who fight, have sex, and furiously try to save their relationship, one that is destined to destroy them.

This play is provocative, passionate and extreme, but alienating, it is not. Ragnar and Sigrún are so ‘normal’ in every way. The director does an exceptional job of not taking sides and maintaining balance between Ragnar and Sigrún. The result is human, sympathetic characters that are relatable.

Sigrún (Elma Stefanía Ágústsdóttir) is lonely and often depressed. She has threatened suicide more than once and appears to be struggling with the lingering effects of postpartum depression after the birth of their second child. “Not a day goes by I don’t feel the pain of carrying those children,” she says. Sigrún finds herself seeking friendship through the Internet to spark the disconnected void that is her life.

Ragnar (Snorri Engilbertsson) feels insecure. He may have control issues, perhaps even jealous tendencies, but he loves his wife and wants her to feel better and to get better. Although, they are separated for now – he has moved out of the apartment that they own – all of his clothes coincidently, still remain in the bedroom closet he shares with his wife. He comes by daily to visit their two children every night, often spending the night. “The back and forth is driving me insane and it’s no good for the kids,” he says.

Love is complicated and messy; rarely are matters of the heart simple and neat.

The chemistry and raw, intuitive instincts of Snorri Engilbertsson and Elma Stefanía Ágústsdóttir have created convincing and recognizable characters with their two roles. They flawlessly perform the back and forth transitions between present day and the flashbacks to the past with pinpoint emotional precision. The vigor of their physicality is ferocious at times – with in your face shouting, the aggressive clutching of one another, to the energetic club scene dancing and the titillating Dirty Dancing routine.

I couldn’t help but smile when Jennifer Warnes & Bill Medley’s Dirty Dancing theme song started playing, and Ragnar and Sigrún swayed their hips and began dancing their own “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” version of the entire (yes, the entire) Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey dance sequence from the movie. It’s an unexpected highlight and a memorable moment of the production. Engilbertsson dance skill is immediately apparent and a quick flip to his Playbill bio tells me that he trained in Latin and Ballroom dancing for ten years.

These actors raised the bar with this production making it better than the script which is occasionally repetitive, and could use some scene development and overall tightening. There is an entire gap with Ragnar and Sigrún’s relationship that is not addressed even though it is integral to the story being told. Flashbacks are a routinely used narrative device in Harmsaga, but the audience never learns the pivotal moment in their history when the ‘good’ of the past collides into the prevailing bad of the present day.

The Pulsating beats, screaming electronic and throbbing sound effects soundscape of Kristinn Gauti Einarsson and the eclectic music of John Grant is an auditory delight of this rock-style theatre. Harmsaga wouldn’t be the knock out production that it is without Robert’s magnetic originality and Einarsson kick-ass sound design. From the strategically placed blue neon lights that open the play, to the disco floor light show, and the golden yellow floor lights that outline the exterior and interior rooms of the house like a blueprint, the inventive lighting and set design by Magnus Arnar Sigurdarson and Eva Signy Berger is an eyeful. Director, Una Thorleifsdottir, has done a brilliant job of assembling a think outside of the box production design team that heighten and effectively clarify the past and present plot transitions that are one of the main takeaways I won’t soon forget about Harmsaga.

Harmsaga is a potent reminder of how careless we are with the way we talk to the people that we love the most, and the extreme demands we expect them to fulfill.

Snorri Engilbertsson (Ragnar) and  Elma Stefanía Ágústsdóttir(Sigrún). Photo courtesy of EDDI.
Snorri Engilbertsson (Ragnar) and Elma Stefanía Ágústsdóttir(Sigrún). Photo courtesy of EDDI.

The conversations and disputes between Ragnar and Sigrun are recognizable to most couples, and they constantly send mix messages. (“Why don’t you just love me, I love you.”) When they argue it doesn’t usually matter what’s said, or if it’s true – they are antagonizing the other to get them engaged in the argument. (“You don’t love me, you only love yourself.”) They try to hurt each other with words.

Tensions mount to a jarring final scene, where quarreling of their heartache, passion, and love collide with the painful recollections of a reality that can never be again.

‘Harmsaga’ is the Icelandic word for tragedy, and there are no happy endings in this production.

Like the 2004 true Icelandic story that Harmsaga is based, a young, hopeful couple just pushes the wrong buttons in each other.

The games people play when the stakes of love are involved is no child’s play for the faint of heart.

The questions are many. The answers are few.

Performed in English. Recommended for mature audiences.

Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Harmsaga played March 15 at 7:30pm and March 16, 2014 at 2 pm in the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.  

The closest metro station is Foggy Bottom/George Washington University. There is a FREE Kennedy Center Shuttle that departs from the metro station every 15 minutes from 9:45 a.m.-Midnight Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-Midnight Saturdays, and noon-Midnight Sundays.


Read Sydney-Chanele Dawkins’ other reviews here of shows in the World Stages: International Theater Festival:

The Suit. 
Tapioca Inn: Incendios.
Death & the Maiden (La Muerte y La Doncella). 
Savannah Bay.

World Stages Festival YouTube channel.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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