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‘A Doll’s House’: Far beyond simple feminism

Jennifer Sue Johnson as Nora and Michael Patten as Torvald in Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of "A Doll's House." Credit: Photo: John Ulman

“From below, the sound of a door slamming shut….” That unforgettable conclusion to "A Doll’s House" might be the most famous stage direction in theater history (with Shakespeare’s “exit, pursued by a bear” from "The Winter’s Tale" a close contender).

It signals the shocking culmination of the play by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) that was itself a game-changer from the moment it premiered in Copenhagen just before Christmas in 1879. The door being slammed by Nora Helmer represents her escape route from the marriage that’s defined her life up to that point.

Nora’s notorious gesture also seemed to underscore a revolutionary declaration of the untapped potential of theater itself. Its influence has echoed across generations of artists, from George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce to Arthur Miller. Even the Beatles toyed with the idea of titling one of their later projects "A Doll’s House." (It eventually became known as "The White Album.")

And the challenges Ibsen’s play poses hold a special resonance for those involved in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production, which opens Friday.

“On the surface,” says George Mount, the company’s artistic director, “'A Doll’s House' seems like a tense domestic melodrama, but Ibsen was right in the vanguard of playing with form, using the expectations of potboilers that were the rage at the time and turning them on their ear.” Mount suggests that these escapist formulas provided a kind of Trojan horse for Ibsen to introduce provocative ideas and social commentary. “The play uses the stock element of blackmail, but then that gets resolved and Ibsen takes a turn.”

After the danger of blackmail has passed, Nora is forced to confront the meaning of her marriage and her love for her banker husband Torvald in a terrifying new light. “The struggle has revealed a deeper problem with society as a whole,” Mount adds.

Seattle Shakes is presenting the first major Seattle production of Ibsen’s seminal play in a decade. (The last one was early in Bart Sher’s reign at Intiman and used the streamlined adaptation by Ingmar Bergman.) For the occasion, Mount even commissioned a new translation from local writer and actor Sean Patrick Taylor, translator of the "Cyrano de Bergerac" the company performed in 2006. Russ Banham, who is directing "A Doll’s House," says the collaborative process between Taylor and the cast has been creatively stimulating. Though many alternatives are of course available, “we wanted a translation that would make it seem like the action was happening today, where the audience wouldn’t think, ‘This is a chestnut.’ And Sean did a first-rate job.”

An important aspect of Ibsen’s revolutionary new theater has to do with his use of natural-sounding prose dialogue and realistic situations in place of stagey conventions. (He actually began his career with a series of verse dramas: most famously, the epic "Peer Gynt.") But the prose sets up difficulties of its own for English speakers.

“Ibsen wrote in a literary dialect we now refer to as Dano-Norwegian, Norway having been a tributary of Denmark for hundreds of years,” explains Taylor. “As is the case with all Scandinavian tongues, Ibsen’s language, if translated word for word, strikes the modern ear as prolix.” He says he wanted to avoid the extremes of being too literal and of rewriting for theatrical effect, “according to one’s own idiosyncratic notion of what the playwright should have said, if only he were as hip as we are.” Especially crucial for Taylor was finding a way to maintain the right pacing, to give the play “a headlong momentum.”

It’s normal for the company, which launched in 1991, to include at least one non-Shakespeare classic in its seasonal lineup. (Last year it was an energetically paced, anti-sentimental version of Shaw’s "Pygmalion.") But "A Doll’s House" in particular makes demands that, in one sense, are reminiscent of those required to interpret Shakespeare for contemporary audiences. Like the Bard, Ibsen’s iconic status in theater history and in academia can have a petrifying effect — as if it’s more appropriate to read about his influence than actually to see him in performance. Then, too, with Ibsen there's a weighty history of layers of performance tradition that can make attempts to craft a fresh interpretation daunting.

The Guardian has a contemporary video response to Ibsen's "A Doll's House" here.

Banham, who has directed five previous shows for Seattle Shakes, is determined to dust off clichés and facile assumptions about the significance of "A Doll’s House." “I felt that productions I’d seen through the years failed to capture the original excitement of the play and fell into the trap of being either too melodramatic or too strident.”

While Nora’s last-minute decision to reject the web of illusions that has sustained her married life with Torvald has often been viewed as a “clarion call” for women’s rights in defiance of patriarchy, he points out, the issue isn’t nearly so straightforward. “Ibsen actually denied that he intended a feminist polemic. The play was inspired by what happened in real life to a contemporary of Ibsen, who did the same thing Nora did by committing forgery and who was put into a mental institution.”

To be sure, Ibsen’s play touched off scorching controversy, as he would continue to do by bringing to the stage such topics as syphilis and euthanasia (in "Ghosts"). For the first production of "A Doll’s House" to go forward in Germany, the playwright was required to provide an alternative “happy” ending he later denounced.

But the fascination of these works could hardly be so enduring if Ibsen were merely the master of the preachy “problem play,” an image he’s often been saddled with. When I caught the incendiary revival of "An Enemy of the People" last fall on Broadway, even this seemingly more “polemical” play about a whistleblower reminded me of how incisively — and unexpectedly — Ibsen cuts away our carapace of self-deluding rationalization. (No wonder the likewise supposedly “preachy” Shaw learned so much from the Norwegian master about upending expectations.)

An earlier Broadway revival of Ibsen proved to be an epiphany for Banham. “In 1997 I got to see the Tony-winning production of 'A Doll’s House' starring Janet McTeer as Nora. Her performance bowled me over and made me realize that people had been missing the point of the play, what makes it so alive, so contemporary.” Instead of everything hinging on the sudden transformation of her last scene with Torvald, he explains, McTeer sustained a sense of suspense across the whole arc of the play.

Banham adds that it’s immensely satisfying to direct a play in which “the supporting roles are so vividly drawn as well.” For example, Krogstadt, the bank employee who threatens to blackmail Nora, “isn’t just a single-faceted villain, but has lived a hard life. The path he traces with Nora’s friend Kristine Linde, who together reclaim their passion, is the exact opposite of Torvald and Nora. I believe they’re a paradigm of modern marriage as a shared union of two people.”

“I’m a devotee of Peter Brook [the British film director and innovator] and the organic process," he says. "For me, the actor is the artist, and the director helps the actors achieve the fullest extent of their art.”

Banham is thrilled about the individual talents of the "Doll’s House" cast as well as their chemistry together. Jennifer Sue Johnson [Banham’s wife] takes on the challenge of Nora. “You need an actress who can play the Nora Torvald wants her to be, his accoutrement, but who all this time is dealing with her mounting anxiety.” As Torvald, Michael Patten contributes “an emotional availability that intensifies his collapse at the end. I’ve never seen a Torvald go that deep.”

Another real-life couple — Peter Dylan O’Connor and Betsy Schwartz — play the off-again, on-again lovers Krogstadt and Mrs Linde. George Mount himself will appear as the melancholy Dr. Rank, whose confession that he loves Nora represents another major turning point in the play. The design elements, meanwhile, will emphasize the play’s claustrophobic atmosphere so as to make Nora’s exit “that much more powerful.”

Mount, now in the middle of his first full season helming Seattle Shakes, remarks that the choice of Ibsen is very much in keeping with the company’s larger mission. “As a classical theater, we’re the contemporary curators of the great stories: big, timeless stories that, if not epic in scale, are epic in thought.” He adds that "A Doll’s House" reverberates with themes of relationships that are explored in the company’s other offerings this season, from the epic scale of "Antony and Cleopatra" to the “bittersweet take on young love” in "Love’s Labor’s Lost" and “the ultimate battle of the sexes” in "The Taming of the Shrew."

Whether presenting Shakespeare or Ibsen, according to Mount, “there’s nothing academic or stale about these plays. Theater is a contemporary form, and being able to revitalize these stories is the most important function the classical theater has.” As for "A Doll’s House," “I hope what we’re doing can go beyond the simple reading of a woman finding her independence. It’s really about anyone discovering their own sense of worth and self — a discovery that goes beyond the circumstances of the play or a history lesson about a revolutionary playwright.”

If you go: Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House" runs through January 27 at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St. Call 206-733-8222 or order tickets online. Tickets: $22-45.

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