A Selfish Sacrifice

When Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) director Israel Hicks commissioned Charles F. (OyamO) Gordon to write an adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, he gave only one instruction—that the protagonists be the Nigerian Ambassador to the United Nations and his lovely wife. The prescience of such a vision is now clear: With the anachronisms in the original cleverly and seamlessly updated, the play is free to reach its full emotional potential with contemporary audiences.

OyamO accomplishes this by layering the intricacies of a particular African culture—its stark contrasts between Muslims and Christians and Animists, and between agrarian and industrial economies—on top of Ibsen's rock-solid foundation, retaining about 80 per cent of the master's dialogue, and changing the details of the story only where necessary for continuity's sake or dramatic effect on modern sensibilities.

Photo of Terrence Riggins as the Nigerian Ambassador to the United Nations (Akin) and Kim Staunton as his wife (Aku)
Terrence Riggins as the Nigerian
Ambassador to the United Nations (Akin)
and Kim Staunton as his wife (Aku)
Photo: Terry Shapiro
In an elegant drawing room furnished with antiques and oriental carpeting, underneath a massive crystal chandelier and classical arches festooned with seasonal decorations, Aku, the Ambassador's wife, is still adjusting to the materialistic realities of American life. In the country only six weeks, she is fully captivated by the selection of goods from which she is able to choose Christmas presents for her husband and three children. And as her predecessor, Nora, in the original version, Aku's story begins with indulgences in forbidden macaroons and arguments with her husband over expenses.

Photo of Kim Staunton as Aku
Kim Staunton as Aku
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Adorned in the resplendent colors and luxuriant textures of her homeland, Kim Staunton's Aku cuts a striking figure. At the outset, she is aglow with cheeriness at her prospects and is uniquely captivating, punctuating her conversation with stylized gestures rooted in African movement. Later, after the intermission's symbolic passage of two days, Staunton, with subtle shading, turns Aku inward, preparing us for her frantic, diversionary dance and final excruciating break with the past.

As her husband, Akin, Terrence Riggins brims with magisterial confidence, whether issuing decisive orders for his embassy and his household, characterizing his own virtuousness, or declaring his desire for his wife. In a delicious moment bathed in a red spotlight, all these elements come together for him as he dances with Aku at the ball. Afterwards, when his marriage has all unraveled, he remains dignified despite his loss.

Photo of Kim Staunton as Aku and Veralyn Jones as Ijeudo
Kim Staunton as Aku
and Veralyn Jones as Ijeudo
Photo: Terry Shapiro
In Ibsen's clever plot, those serving as the catalysts for the Akin and Aku's fateful drama are caught up by the same forces, though with an altogether different resolution. Aku's long-lost girlhood friend Ijeudo, who comes to New York, and Aku's home, looking for work, gets more than she bargained for when her former lover, now Akin's embassy associate Obadele Rhineheart, shows up trying to save his job and salvage his reputation.

Veralyn Jones brings a mesmerizing persuasiveness to Ijeudo. She is capable of moralizing over Aku's behavior surrounding the infamous loan, and then turning around and humbly begging Rhineheart for forgiveness for cutting off their earlier relationship, when she married an elderly gent for the money to save her family.

Photo of Kim Staunton as Aku and Charles Weldon as Rhineheart
Kim Staunton as Aku and
Charles Weldon as Rhineheart
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Shifty and insinuating, Charles Weldon builds us a Rhineheart that justifies Akin's unflattering accusations, before surprising us, hat in hand, with an honest and contrite confession to Ijeudo of his motives and misdeeds.

In a stunning update of the play's love scene between these two wounded survivors-who share an equality in their relationship of which Aku can only dream—OyamO artfully nurtures their growing honesty and affection, which culminates in a stunning declaration of love and a memorable kiss.

Photo of Kim Staunton as Akumma and Harvy Blanks as Dr. Armstrong
Kim Staunton as Aku and
Harvy Blanks as Dr. Armstrong
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Further polishing the universality of the play, Ibsen sets the ultimate boundary with the looming health issues of a close friend and confidant of the protagonists. In OyamO's version, Harvy Blanks is Dr. Samuel Armstrong, the everyday visitor to Akin and Aku's home. Working with a limp and exhibiting his strength as a storyteller, Blanks' Armstrong counsels, cajoles, and endears himself to the couple, before leaving his final black-marked calling card.

The Nigerian flavor of this adaptation creates a number of surprising opportunities. Staunton's, Riggins', and Jones' African accents achieve a lyricism in the dialogue not present in the original, and the openness of the DCTC's in-the-round Space Theatre frees up the blocking to find an idiom more accessible than the 19th-Century Norwegian prototype. Additionally, director Israel Hicks takes advantage of the close proximity of the surrounding audience, providing a number of telling, intimate cinematic moments for Aku, within which she reveals her innermost workings in silence, providing room for the germ of her evolution.

There is one slippery area in the script that causes a hitch in the production: Nora's playful suggestion of infidelity to Mrs. Linde in the original becomes an actual confession in this adaptation. This certainly raises the stakes when Rhineheart threatens Aku with the revelation of their secrets to Akin. But when Akin finally reads the letter, we are never explicitly told, nor may we implicitly gather, whether he has been apprised of their sexual relations.

Photo of Terrence Riggins as Akin
Terrence Riggins as Akin
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Riggins' Akin is naturally angry, and reacts as Thorvald had to Nora, forbidding her to raise the children and reformulating their marriage into a public show for appearance's sake and a private hell of retribution. Yet his physical restraint in this scene is not that of a devout and virile Muslim who has been told his wife has cuckolded him. We can only surmise he has learned only that Aku forged her father's signature, not that she bargained for the loan with sex, leading us to wonder why the issue of infidelity was raised in the first place.

Staunton, on the other hand, pushes her character's pent-up anger to near hysterics, threatening to demolish her carefully-constructed enlightenment, and casting doubt on her ability to survive on her own. Here, a more focused anger would strengthen what is, nevertheless, her cathartic exit.

Though much has been gained in women's rights in the 125 years since "a door slam heard 'round the world," much remains to be done. With this adaptation, the courage of one woman once again gives hope to many.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of OyamO's A Selfish Sacrifice runs through February 26th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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