Theatre Mirror Reviews - "A Dollís House"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Henrik Ibsen
adapted by Frank McGuinness
directed by Sarah Friedberg

Helene Ö Melissa Baroni
Nora Helmer Ö Ellen Adair
Messenger Ö Brian Quint
Torvald Helmer Ö Dann Anthony Maurno
Kristine Linde Ö Julie Dapper
Nils Krogstad Ö Brian Quint
Dr. Rank Ö Bill Salem
Anne-Marie Ö Fran Renehan

Last spring Small World Big Sky Productions debuted at the Devanaughn Theatre with a respectable production of THE ILLUSION that hinted at still-better things to come; now SWBS has returned with A DOLLíS HOUSE and what leaps and bounds Sarah Friedberg and her company have made, this second time around, for much of it is golden and since there are a limited number of performances and only forty (40) seats in the house youíd be wise to order your tickets, now --- if youíve never experienced a show at the Devanaughn Theatre in Bostonís historic Piano Factory, this is a great place to start.

A DOLLíS HOUSE, of course, is Henrik Ibsenís early-feminist play about Nora, a pampered young wife who believes she is living in the best of all possible worlds --- a successful husband (Torvald) who adores her, three beautiful children, etc. --- only to have her illusions shattered when a clandestine loan she has undertaken for Torvaldís sake backfires; when Torvald turns on Nora (she has acted out of love; he only sees his reputation at stake), she realizes she has been but a mere doll in a toy-marriage and walks out on him, famously slamming the door behind her. Those who recall Mr. Ibsen as an English-class bore will be surprised at how well he plays, onstage --- the fellow wrote crackling good melodramas, albeit heavy on the dovetailing and coincidences, and the final showdown still rings true regarding unequal alliances between domestic partners.

How is Nora to be played so that her scampering and pouts can merge into her newly-awakened feminism? My thoughts are that Nora is neither silly nor stupid to begin with --- she has been molded by societyís expectations before getting to know herself, first, bringing only her beauty and charm to the wedding-table (if you are always told you are but a pretty little songbird, youíll soon act like one and your own worth be damned). In the end, Nora stops pretending to be what she is not (she senses, deep down, that she has been living a lie) and takes control of her own destiny --- only then will she be ready for a true alliance. Nor is Torvald an out-and-out blackguard but as much a victim of his eraís mindset as Nora: he is the breadwinner who views wife, children and home as his amusements, rewards and status symbols. He is condescending behind chivalryís mask and is dumbfounded to learn that his Adamís Rib has her own brain and heartbeat. Ironically, when Nora departs, Torvald is the one who crumbles --- he must now either obtain another doll-wife or reinvent himself to win Nora back.

Sometimes the most satisfying productions of the classics can be found in smaller companies who have neither budget nor resources to support directorial visions and, apart from some musical chords and light shifts that underscore the obvious, SWBS gives you Mr. Ibsen, pure and simple. The decor has a pre-fab look, understandable with so young a company, but Chelsea Whiteís costumes nicely evoke the 19th century (Torvald himself would approve of such fashionable economy) and Ms. Friedberg trusts Mr. Ibsenís machinery and concentrates on her actors, resulting in an impressive ensemble right down to the starchy maid and the kindly, fairytale nanny. The leads have that wonderful orchestration found in repertory players of longer standing: Bill Salem makes an adorable aging cherub out of Dr. Rank and Brian Quint, a Devanaughn regular, turns the stock-villain Krogstad into a figure more pathetic than sinister. Two years ago Julie Dapper earned an Addison for her sparkling Amanda in PRIVATE LIVES; now she quietly excels as the lonely, weary Kristine, a working woman who yearns for the cozy world that Nora is forsaking (notice how Ms. Dapper sits, ramrod straight, suggesting the periodís decorum as well as a very tight corset).

One year ago, this month, I first encountered Ellen Adair as Eliza Doolittle in PYGMALION; she earned an Addison for her pains. I then saw her as Thomasina in ARCADIA, where she was a bit mature for the role. Now she is Nora and how intriguing that Ms. Adairís own breathlessness have gone so hand-in-glove with these three characters, all of them held in check by their societies yet each reaping a personal triumph. Ms. Adair may not have all of Noraís bedrock in place for her transformation (though once she is there, she is solid and true) and her portrayal reads as a spoiled brat who gets a comeuppance but she is always fascinating to watch: whether Ms. Friedberg has guided her, step-by-step, or Ms. Adair has her own inner choreographer, her Nora flutters vocally and facially but her movements are firm as well as decorative --- the body is simply waiting for the mind to set it free. Now, if Ms. Adair could only be cast in something that can cut her loose (a musical, perhaps?) and may I be a sexist and say that she has never looked lovelier?

Last summer, Dann Anthony Maurno turned the role of the drunken brother in THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON into a sodden scene-stealer; his Torvald shows his dapper, sensual side. Torvald is a tricky character: an actress playing Nora can easily win her audienceís affection and all that fluttering can cover up any number of fluffed lines whereas Torvald needs to be an established rock from Square One, his readings securely in place. An actor must play Torvaldís same chord of music repeatedly without becoming monotonous and then have his own fireworks ready for the finale; finally, in these politically correct days, the character must stride onstage without distancing or apology (i.e. ďIím not really like this, ladiesĒ) --- there are plenty of Torvalds still in the world and an actorís streak-free mirror will surely reflect them in any audience. Mr. Maurno, purring throughout, succeeds on all counts and just as Torvald guides Nora along, how wonderful to see Mr. Maurno generously supporting and shaping Ms. Adairís performance and even managing to melt her just a trickle in their love scenes with his well-placed smooches, here and there --- who would have thought that the seasonís sexiest couple would be a chauvinist and his doll-wife in an old chestnut written by a gloomy Norwegian, and for only a few performances more?

"A Dollís House" (2 - 11 December)
Devanaughn Theatre at the Piano Factory, 791 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (866) 811-4111

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