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A Doll's House

Michael Schantz as Torvald and Marianna McClellan as Nora
Michael Schantz as Torvald and Marianna McClellan as Nora
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
At the time (1878-79) that Henrik Ibsen was writing his most famous work—which became, in 2006 (the centennial of his death), the most performed play in the world—women in Norway had achieved some minor gains (equal inheritance and their majority at 21 years of age, the same as men), but they were still denied key legal rights, such as being able to sign contracts and to divorce their husband, save for egregious crimes, and suffrage was a ways down the road (1913).

Michael Schantz as Torvald
Michael Schantz as Torvald
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
Ibsen adapted his story based on the life of a good friend, Laura Kieler (maiden name Laura Smith Petersen). Much of what happens between Nora and Torvald happened to Laura and her husband, Victor: (1) Laura signed an illegal loan to save her husband's health. (She wrote to Ibsen, asking for his recommendation of her work to his publisher, thinking that the sales of her book would repay her debt, but at his refusal ...) (2) She forged a check for the money. (3) Victor discovered Laura's secret loan (following which, he divorced her and had her committed to an asylum). Two years later, she returned to her husband and children at his urging.

Ibsen wrote the play at the point when Laura Kieler had been committed to the asylum, and her fate shook him deeply. His distress was compounded when Laura asked him to intervene at a crucial point in the scandal, which he did not feel able or willing to do. Instead, he turned around the real-life outcome in his play by having Nora leave Torvald with head held high.

Marianna McClellan as Nora
Marianna McClellan as Nora
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
Kieler eventually rebounded from the shame of the scandal and had a successful writing career, while remaining discontented with the public's recognition of her as "Ibsen's Nora." Though she did not live to see it, her success an an author eventually became the basis of a sequel, A Doll's House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath (The Christ?ans, staged by Kent Thompson at the DCTC in 2017), which premiered in 2017, 138 years after the original. In the sequel, Nora returns to Torvald's house, 15 years after the "door slam heard 'round the world," as a successful writer. In one of her most popular books, the second coming of Nora recounts her experiences with Torvald, the sequel thus providing karmic redemption of sorts for Kieler's treatment by her husband and by the state.

Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director, Chris Coleman, is staging the two plays in repertory, including running them back-to-back on weekends, which is the immersive experience detailed in this and the following review, with Coleman directing the original, and Rose Riordan, DCTC's associate artistic director (her recent Denver directorial debut was DCTC's Sweat) helming Hnath's sequel to Ibsen's classic.

Before the play begins, we are immersed in an exquisite period set by Lisa M. Orzolek—brimming with fine furniture, fabrics, objects d'art, and a candled chandelier, flickering much as the original stage lighting did—conjuring and illuminating a living room that is much like we would find in an actual dollhouse. As the late Tony Church—a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and dean of the now-shuttered National Theatre Conservatory at the Denver Center, said in his heralded one-man show, Give ‘Em a Bit of Mystery: Shakespeare and the Old Tradition (produced at the DCTC in 2000)—lighting had a major effect on the acting style of that period, which tended to the melodramatic (posing/voguing), to accomodate the flickering visuals. However, in Frank McGuinness' adapted script under Coleman's fine-tuned direction, now illuminated by contemporary lighting, the exaggerated artifacts in Ibsen's script are mostly tamed; and, where they are not, the audience enjoys a good chuckle at the convergence of the outdated style and Torvald's old-school chauvinism.

Another portion of this taming is due to the intimacy of the Ricketson Theatre, which enables a naturalisitic approach to the original play; in particular, unlocking with incredible clarity, Nora (Marianna McClellan) and Torvald's (Michael Schantz) dysfunctional relationship, via unspoken nuances (facial expressions and body language), as well as tone, all the details of which are accessible to the entire house. These scenes in the original later become fodder for Nora's book and her pointed go-around with Torvald in the sequel. McClellan's transformation—from a woman who aims to please (from force of habit formed by her relationship with her father and then her husband) into a woman willing to act against their patronizing treatment—is sublime, as Nora maneuvers her way through interpersonal and legal obstacles, peaking with a steady show of strength that delivers the horsepower for the coup d'maître and catharsis.

As Nora shifts from victim to protagonist, Torvald moves from antagonist to victim, though we do not see breadth of his changes until the sequel. However, in the original, the clarity that Schantz invests in Torvald's thought processes shines a light on the degree to which men are trapped within various expectations and patterns that have been forced upon them, and which comes with a price as well, when victims become perpetrators. The shock at the emboldened Nora that Schantz registers via Torvald sets up the conditions in which we find him, in the sequel, in his bare "living room."

(Left to right) Leslie O'Carroll as Anne_Marie and Maria McClellan as Nora
(L to R) Leslie O'Carroll as Anne-Marie
and Maria McClellan as Nora
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
The naturalistic style of the setting, direction, and the script is equally effective and evident in the supporting characters' dynamics and subplots. The housekeeper, Anne-Marie (Leslie O'Carroll), took care of Nora as a child, and now tends to Nora's children. As Nora becomes cornered by her own decisions, well-intended as they were, O'Carroll's poignant glimpses, into Anne-Marie's growing concern over her surrogate daughter's state-of-mind, amplifies the momentum of the gathering emotional crisis.

Zachary Andrews as Nils Krogstad and Anastasia Davidson as Kristine Linde
Zachary Andrews as Nils Krogstad
and Anastasia Davidson as Kristine Linde
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
Nora's conflicts are further compounded by helping her old friend, Kristine Linde (Anastasia Davidson), find work, in this case with Torvald; who, in turn, replaces the shady Nils Krogstad (Zachary Andrews) with Kristine, and thus sees no sense in Nora's attempts to have Krogstad reinstated. The subtle subtextual reticence and anxiety, which we assume is a result of Kristine's difficult circumstances, is deftly revealed by Davidson as a more complex alchemy that includes a strategically calculating mind (which is cleverly carried over into the sequel by Davidson as an aspect of Nora's grown daughter's psyche).

Krogstad is equally crafty in his actions, as he must be—to regain the trust of his former acquaintances, friends, and business associates—after having blemished his reputation with the same crime that Nora has committed: forgery. While Krogstad carefully adheres to societal norms, Andrews creates a palpable tension, just below the surface, that presages both the leverage that he later applies to Nora, as well as his circumspection when renewing his relationship with Kristine. Enough can't be said for Ibsen's inspired subconscious resonance of Krogstad's and Kristine's worldviews!

Leif Norby as Dr. Rank and Marianna McClellan as Nora
Leif Norby as Dr. Rank
and Marianna McClellan as Nora
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
A key element in Nora transformation comes from Ibsen's clever insertion of Dr. Rank (Leif Norby) into Torvald and Nora's household. Rank, too, is hiding his true feelings, those he holds for Nora, with Norby delicately handling Rank's carefully constructed pseudo legitimate premises for his visits, so that he can spend time visiting with the object of his affections. In the sequel Norby plays Torvald, providing another interesting karmic twist, by which Coleman and Riordan deliver a series of provocative subtextual questions via their casting in the new work.

A Doll's House premiered in Copenhagen on December 21, 1879, received some excellent reviews, and sold out its entire run. Other productions opened in Stockholm and Christiana, with similar success. However, outside of Scandinavia, there were a number of incidents of censorship; for example, in Germany, where the ending of the play was rewritten by Ibsen (who deeply regretted this) and others adapters. Later, the play was banned in the U.K. Before it finally ran in London in 1889, there were two private productions in its original form, one of which starred Eleanor Marx, Karl's daughter, with George Bernard Shaw in the role of Krogstad. Shaw took up Ibsen and Nora's banner in Mrs. Warren's Profession (1902), which was also banned initially in London.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of A Doll's House runs through November 24th, in repertory with A Doll's House, Part 2. For tickets, including a listing of double feature Saturday/Sunday schedule: denvercenter.org/tickets.

Bob Bows



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