Norway had Ibsen. Sweden had Strinberg. But more than that, those countries had promoters of their most famous playwrights in the English-speaking world.
But what about Finland? Enter Mikko Viherjuuri, a Finnish playwright, director and man with a mission. Also enter Lit Moon Theatre Company founder John Blondell, who was ready to listen. Now, they’re about to give Finnish theater some exposure with Lit Moon’s Midnight Sun Festival, opening tonight.
The festival has a short list of creative names local audiences should get to know, but that’s just the beginning.
For two weeks, Lit Moon, in cooperation with Center Stage Theater, will present four examples of contemporary Finnish theater for the first time ever in America.
Two years ago, Blondell got a message from Viherjuuri, who was literally carrying around a suitcase full of plays representing the best of Finnish theater. He was trying to meet California companies, directors and agents to promote his country’s theater.
“I really liked the guy,” Blondell says, “and when he came to Santa Barbara, he stayed with us.”
Upon reading the play “Queen C,” Blondell knew he wanted to direct it. At first he was toying with the idea of a multicultural festival, a mix of different countries’ plays, but Viherjuuri’s suitcase was too inviting and too full.
Apart from “Queen C,” directed by Blondell, Viherjuuri directs Anna Krogerus’ “For Sheer Love of Me,” a family drama featuring a smart, self-aware 10-year-old on a collision course with her self-involved parents. After its 2006 premiere, the play was a popular and critical success.
Midnight Sun will also offer two staged readings. Mika Myllyaho’s “Panic” focuses on three seemingly successful middle-class men, about to snap under the pressures of modern society. As the comic but serious play progresses, they take on the roles of psychoanalyst and patient, trying to help each other.
“The Finnhorse,” by Sirkku Peltola, explores the conflict in modern Finland between the rural tradition and the pressures of being part of the new Europe. The Finnhorse (or Finnish horse) of the title may be a noble creature, but Jay, the young man at the center of the play, would rather trade it for a Harley-Davidson. Maurice Lord, artistic director of Genesis West, will direct the reading with members of his company.
“Queen C,” however, will get Blondell’s full company and treatment. “There will be a Lit Moon quality,” he says. “It will be oriented to the actor and with strong images. But I certainly won’t be carving the play up. . . . I’m trying to reveal the play for what it is.”
Based on the life of Queen Christina, the 17th-century Swedish monarch, the play explores a woman who lived by her own rules. It premiered in 2002 to acclaim, and will be the oldest play at the festival.
“I try to discuss power and loyalty,” playwright Laura Ruohonen says, “and see what the impact is when the one claiming power is female, a wild girl and princess. . . . I believe that drama can and should exist both as theater and literature. That’s what makes it so challenging.”
Viherjuuri says: “This festival is the first step. I’ve been told it’s innovative for me to promote these plays the old-fashioned way . . . but I believe in eye contact. I’m still surprised that these doors have opened to me and Finnish theater.”
LIT MOON’S MIDNIGHT SUN FESTIVAL
When: tonight through June 17
Where: Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo, upstairs
Tickets: $25 general, $12 students, seniors
Information: 963-0408 or www.litmoon.com