April 24, 2003

Rebuilding The Dollhouse

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When Rachel Lampert, artistic director of the Kitchen Theatre, selected the final play for the year’s theatrical schedule, she made a wise choice. With Ingmar Bergman’s Nora (an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House), Lampert has perfectly iced the superbly satisfying and plentiful cake that was the 2002/2003 season. Nora, directed by Wendy Dann, is a concise and refocused working of the Norwegian playwright’s classic. Dann showcases how Bergman, who is better known for his movies, has achieved the impossible task of adapting a sacred text.

But much like its mother-play, Nora is still a story about the oppression of women in a patriarchal society; and a lesson in which the revelation of painful truths results in the greater good. Although a century old, the story remains one that is as powerful and compelling as it was when Ibsen created a stir in society with its unexpected and unparalleled accurate depiction of the world it was released into.

The play finds Nora, most likely a 30-something year-old housewife, living on the brink of the world she always wanted. Her husband, Torvald Helmer, has recently acquired the position of bank manager at his firm and is soon to start having his hard work pay off. The play is set in Ibsen’s native Norway. Nora is frivolous and self-amused but her apparent joviality is hiding a past that could stop her enjoying the wealth and power her family is soon to come into. Naturally, a chain of events occur that result in the past coming back to haunt her.

The performances of Torvald (Brad Drummer) and Nora (Paula Murray Cole) carry the emotions of the audience on Ibsen’s intended ride through the play. For most of the action, Drummer is an admirable and seemingly caring husband, whilst conversely, Murray Cole’s Nora is a painfully hard character to like. The majority of the play elevates the wrong-doing of Nora’s past (she forged her dying father’s signature to obtain a loan) and coupled with Torvald’s complete unknowing, the dislike of Nora and the favor for Torvald grow as the play progresses. This is all a part of Ibsen’s technique to highlight the play’s main message through dramatic contrast toward the end of the text. Our opinions of the characters–and of a whole lot more–are soon to change.

Drummer and Murray Cole are not the only acting highlights of the night. It is notable that the final play of this Kitchen Theatre schedule may indeed present the finest all-round cast performance of the season. Dean Robinson plays Krogstad, a lawyer and the person from whom Nora took her loan. Robinson is wonderfully multilayered in his portrayal of the complex character. It is all too easy for Krogstad to be performed as a mere villain–someone whose only intent is to bring down Nora by revealing her past–but here, Robinson shows the subtle hints of a man with underlying good intentions.

Like Nora, Krogstad had his own secrets. We learn that he was also guilty of forgery, but as with many of the parallels between Nora and Krogstad, he committed his crime for the benefit of his loved ones. On top of this subtlety, Robinson is still the creepy and intimidating man his character has to be. Rounding out the great cast performance are Greg Bostwick (playing a cleverly authoritarian yet manipulative Dr. Rank) and Erica Steinhagen who plays Nora’s confidant, Mrs. Linde.

In reworking the play, Bergman has done a couple of key things. Firstly, the play is an act shorter leaving out some worthwhile but ultimately peripheral dialogue. The second change apparent under Dann’s directing is that there is a refocusing of a key issue. Here, the person who we are made to care most about as a result of the ultimate wrong-doings is Nora. In the original A Doll’s House we are led to accept that the people who are affected most by Nora’s legal crimes and Torvald’s social ones are the couple’s children. In Nora, the children are never seen and scarcely mentioned.

Making Nora the lone focal point by removing the children helps underline a hugely important motive of Ibsen. Ibsen documented in notes at the time of writing A Doll’s House his awareness of the oppression of women. “A woman cannot be herself in modern society,” he wrote. “It is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men