Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Doll's House

When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who loved Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House." We studied it in both 10th and 12th grade and I remember writing multiple papers on it. He described the slamming door at the end of the play as the trumpet that sounded the beginning of modern drama.

While I had studied and read the play a great deal (albeit nearly two decades ago), I had never seen it performed live, the way it was intended to be. It was for this reason that I was very excited to see the show in Icarus Falling's season.

Ibsen resisted calling this play a feminist play and I think he had a point. If you call it a feminist play, then it is pretty dated in 2008. However, when it is looked upon as a play about relationships, about growing up, and about independence, the play continues to be relevant.

I was able to see the IF show on the Saturday of their opening weekend. The space they were performing in at Olivet was beautiful and the auditorium was a cozy, comfortable, intimate one.

The somewhat spartan set (though certainly more of a set than what IF usually mounts--there were actually painted flats) underscored that the Helmers had been experiencing hard times for a number of years, hard times that might finally be at an end now that Torvald Helmer has secured a new, prestigious position at the bank.

The relationship between Torvald (played by Mark Gmazel) and Nora (Amy Winchell) is one that is far more complicated than its contemporary audiences would have believed for the first two acts. They are in many ways conventional. Torvald is patriarchal, and Nora is the devoted wife who hides her strengths away from her husband to protect him from worry.

Ah, and I'm lapsing into essay/term paper writing mode, aren't I? It's a huge temptation with this show because there is so much meat to be chewed upon in it. It's also a play that requires a fair amount of analysis--or table work--for the actors who are performing it as they must be able to capture both the outward appearance of the character and the deeper, more complex motivations.

Perhaps also my biggest issue with this play is that Torvald is so unsympathetic. Part of that is due to our modern sensibilities. We rightly cringe at a husband treating a wife like a child. However, that is a role that Torvald chose out of duty and love and that Nora encouraged and was a complicit partner in. What makes her choice at the end so compelling is that she recognizes what society at that point doesn't--that the relationship has kept her a child and that she needs to grow up if she is truly going to have a relationship filled with wonder, respect, and love. In this production, and perhaps without changing the script it is impossible to do for modern audiences, the unhappiness in the relationship seemed entirely Torvald's fault.

The majority of the storytelling falls to Winchell and Gmazel. Winchell creates a Nora who is blissfully and obliviously happy. She is completely unaware of her affect on others and is sometimes cruel in her carelessness. She is a delightful child filled with childish joys, innocence, and fears. She rarely leaves the stage during the three-hour production and her energy is the main reason the show flows so well and does not feel like a three-hour show.

Gmazel created a very consistent character who sometimes edged too close to buffoonery. His voice and manner captured well the patriarchal husband who was desperately in love with the ideal of his wife while being oblivious to his wife's real needs and character.

I do wish that in the final conflict that Nora had been placed further upstage. I wanted to see Torvald through Nora's eyes and not simply look at Torvald's back as he berated her. That was the moment that revealed the relationship for what it was--and revealed Torvald's obsession with appearances. It felt like a disservice to the audience that Torvald was looking away from them.

Another disappointing aspect of the show was Adam Bright's Krogstad. While he did very well to keep him from being the melodramatic mustache-twirler with a black cloak, he also failed to be at all intimidating or worthy of the fear that others showed him.

However, all of these observations are part of what engaged me in the show. It was an evening I thoroughly enjoyed and I've continued thinking about aspects of the show since then. What made it a great night of theater was that it inspired so many things to discuss afterward.

While I must get this posted as it has sat in draft for more than a week, there is plenty more that could be written about. Michael Hays did a fine job as Dr. Rank and he provided some of the most compelling emotion in the show. Jordan (ah, and I must go find my program and come back and edit this entry to stick in her last name) did a lovely job as the bright, beloved daughter of the Helmers. The costumes were beautiful--especially the Tarantella dress.

But for now, dinner calls and if you read this soon, there are still two performances you can catch at Woldumar: one tonight at 8 p.m. and the Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.

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