By Carol Burbank
If there's one classic I'd like to call ancient history, it's A Doll's House. But despite the passage of a century or so since Ibsen's play was first produced, its subject remains a serious cultural problem: the prison of conventional marriage, which locks men and women into rigid roles. Although women in the Western world have more rights than their 19th-century counterparts, the crippling failure of Nora and Torvald Helmer's marriage still strikes a nerve, even in Court Theatre's stripped-down production of Ingmar Bergman's adaptation, Nora.
Bergman is faithful to Ibsen's plot, which tells a common story in an uncommonly powerful melodramatic way. Nora gradually learns that if she wants to grow up and create a marriage of equals, she must leave her oppressive, infantilizing husband and follow the hard road of independence. In Ibsen's time, women couldn't own property, vote, or control their own finances; Nora broke this rule when she borrowed money, forging her father's signature, to pay for a year abroad that saved her husband's life when he was dangerously ill. When her secret is revealed, all illusions about their marriage are shattered. Torvald's manly protection and unconditional love turn out to be fantasies, and Nora leaves, slamming the door in a theatrical gesture that has become the play's famous punch line.
But the Court production rejects the slammed door as well as all the other realistic stage conventions that usually make Ibsen's world so immediate and convincing. Part of this decision was clearly Bergman's: he cut the three-act play into a one-act, retaining only the most intense moments and focusing every scene on Nora's emotional dilemmas. In effect he's cut the "show" and left only the most blatant "tell" of Ibsen's script. But though Bergman scythed out most of the background details, his productions of the play gave audiences enough of a set--couches, a Christmas tree, a bed--to ground the action in the ordinary world. Without these details, however, the script resembles a postmodern soap opera, presenting Nora's life as an escalating series of emotional crises divorced from any daily routine. In fact, it's as if normal life didn't exist. As a result, it seems that Nora rejects the trauma of some ideological betrayal rather than the tedium of daily powerlessness. And Nora's decision seems inevitable from the first scene, which means that the play must move like a tragic juggernaut to build suspense.
Unfortunately, any potential emotional intensity is undercut by Court's abstract set design and in-the-round staging. Set on steel platforms that look more appropriate to Wooster Group productions than to Ibsen's naturalistic drama, this version provides no room for grand gestures--there are no doors to slam at all. Daniel Ostling's metaphor in metal dwarfs the actors and sets the play in a combination prison/chessboard. And the audience, surrounding the set, peers at the action as casually as spectators in the lion house. Ostling's open cube is ringed by a walkway, with steel cables at each corner; coldly oppressive steel checkerboards serve as the floor and ceiling, sandwiching the actors into the playing space. And although they move freely in and out of the cube, they seem so small by comparison that it's easy to imagine them as Barbie and Ken dolls in 19th-century clothes, more ideas than people. Mara Blumenfeld's detailed, cleverly anachronistic costumes further dislocate the play. My companion compared Nora's friend Christine's black vinyl-striped, ruffled dress to fanciful licorice candy. Nora's glossy red corset over a simple gray gown is both the most abstract of the costumes and the most obvious thematically. Every character's clothes baldly state his or her role: sex kitten, matron, gadabout, fool.
The performances director Charles Newell has coaxed from his actors are as emblematic as the design. The characters rarely look at one another, and when their eyes do meet, the performers are usually speaking from ritual positions at the edges of the cube. The space changes with the performances, depending on whether the actors are circling like gladiators, moving forward by measured paces like chess pieces, or lounging like prisoners forced to relax in their confining cells. Props are a major complication. Sometimes Newell makes a significant prop--like Nora's forged promissory note--into an icon, set on the floor in a spotlight. But usually the actors simply drop their props, awkwardly placing ledgers, hats, and sewing baskets around the edges of the space. This stylized abstraction modernizes Ibsen's play but fails to illuminate the story. And ultimately this production fails the play's most important character.
As played by Kate Collins, Nora is tense from the beginning, pacing like a caged animal. Her distracted cheerfulness is quickly explained by her increasing anxiety and fear. When she finally focuses grimly on her failed marriage in her last speech, she belts out her lines as if they'd been in
her mind the whole time. Collins seems to have no other choice given the empty set, the total lack of connection between her and the other characters, and the pared-down script. Nora is the least real of the characters in this production. Her final speech, an aria of a monologue, is surprisingly flat despite Collins's sobs and exclamations. She has nothing on which to build the moment, because Bergman and Newell have eliminated all of Ibsen's naturalistic clutter. There's no real tragedy in her decision to leave--Nora seems to abandon her former life as easily as she unbuckles her sexy corset and drops it to the floor, breathing a little easier but gaining or losing nothing in particular.
I was disappointed by my cold response, and particularly because I often dislike slavishly naturalistic productions of Ibsen. But once I tired of looking at Ostling and Blumenfeld's star design work, there was nothing very engaging in Nora. The cast--including Alexandra Billings, Thomas Joseph Carroll, John Reeger, and Craig Spidle in addition to Collins--labor passionately at their dispassionate performances. Newell's worthy experiment is ambitious but mechanical, a pretty doll that's better to look at than take to heart.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Dan Rest.