It’s War

The juxtaposition of two masterpieces by two giants of modern theater on opposite sides of the ever more relevant and explosive issue of gender is a New York theatrical event. Theater for a New Audience has paired Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with the lesser-known The Father, by August Strindberg, a play written partially in response to the Ibsen play.

Director Arin Arbus and her creative team brilliantly use the same actors in similar roles in both plays and configure the theater at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in traverse with the audience on two sides of a fairly narrow but long stage. A Doll’s House, first produced in 1887, follows the 1937 Thornton Wilder adaptation. The Father, written in 1887, boasts a newly commissioned translation of from writer and director David Greig.

Both plays tell the story of a marriage that falls apart when a woman takes action on behalf of a husband or child in a world in which the society upholds male prerogatives. The law denies both women scope of action on critical matters in their lives. In The Father, it would deprive Laura (Maggie Lacey), the wife of Captain Adolf, the title character, of any say in the future of her child. In A Doll’s House, it turns Nora’s saving of her husband Thorwald’s life into a criminal act. What will Laura do when the Captain (John Douglas Thompson), her husband, announces his irrevocable decision to send their daughter away to school to become a teacher when she wants Bertha (Kimber Monroe) to remain home and study art? What will happen to Nora when her forgery of a promissory note on a loan is revealed to him just as, inconveniently, he is about to start a new job as the head of a bank?

In both plays the man is the provider, and the husband complains about his wife’s spending his hard-earned money (no concept of an economic partnership here!). Both women must connive to make their marriages work and get what they want, be it the nibble of a macaroon or the destiny of a child. In both, wives get in the way of their husbands’ careers, Laura in misdirecting her husband’s scientific letters detailing hard-won discoveries, and Nora in forging her father’s signature and potentially placing her husband in a compromised situation at his bank. Is it coincidence that the dramatic turning point of each play depends on an act of male violence? In The Father, Captain Adolf throws a lamp at his wife and the resulting fire is a tour de force of staging by Arbus with Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design. Matters for the Captain devolve from there. In A Doll’s House, the violence is verbal. Thorwald’s berating of Nora when he feels his career and social standing are threatened fires Nora’s decision to leave the confinement of her “doll’s house.” The overlap of the two plays could hardly be more striking.

But that overlap is indeed the point, and it throws the different human, gender, and theatrical visions of the plays into far sharper relief. A Doll’s House is, of course, not just the dramatic rendering and canny analysis of the woman’s situation in the late 19th century; it is a manifesto that speaks boldly even today. When Nora’s husband, Thorwald, defends himself to his wife, saying, “No man sacrifices his honor even for the woman he loves,” and Nora responds, “Millions of women have done it,” the audience at the Polonsky erupted in applause. With humiliating clarity, Nora comes to understand how living in homes run by men has stunted her growth as a human being. “I’ve been living like a beggar, by performing tricks for you!” she tells Thorwald. “You and my father are responsible. It’s your fault my life has been wasted.” Maggie Lacey is commendable in both wife roles, and does especially well with the lighter shades of Nora’s passionate character.

In The Father, the Captain’s human growth has been stunted too, and in a manner parallel to Nora’s, since it is his profound and early attachments to women, plumbed to extraordinary depths in the play and in the harrowing and magnificent performance by Thompson, that undermine and doom him. Thompson’s performances as the husbands are powerful, but the Strindberg provides him with a role of rare emotional range in which he, along with the audience watching him, absolutely revels. The Father is a cri de coeur on behalf of husbands and breadwinners everywhere and the sacrifices that come with that role. At the heart of this painful play is not a heroic vision of manhood but rather a disturbing vision of male weakness. It is out of weakness that the Captain reaches to the law and social norms of male prerogative to counter the will of his determined wife.

At the same time, staging the plays in repertory works to Strindberg’s advantage. The tight construction of The Father, in which the suspicions his wife plants about whether he is Bertha’s father or not drive the Captain to insanity, makes the Ibsen work feel, at moments, contrived, as when Nora’s friend and foil, Mrs. Linden, makes the shocking decision to allow Thorwald to find the damning letter that will reveal Nora’s forgery. The psychological contradictions and depths of Strindberg’s portrayal of the Captain makes Ibsen’s portrayal of Nora's final resolve to leave her husband and two children appear less powerfully motivated by comparison. 

At the end of A Doll’s House, there is hope beyond the confines of the performance itself. Nora, who was courageous enough to undertake an extraordinary scheme to save a husband’s life, will surely succeed now that she has made the decision to save her own life.  And in the aftermath of battle, there is the possibility of a new woman and new man that will emerge from this process. The same is not true for the more despairing vision of Strindberg, in which the male is fundamentally powerless, and the entire family a rubble of destruction. Tellingly, it is the Captain’s own nanny, Margaret, beautifully played with unexampled tenderness by Laurie Kennedy, who tricks him into the actual straitjacket to which his madness has led him. For the noble Captain, there is no exit. Strindberg’s vision is as dark as Ibsen’s is radical.

Arbus and her marvelous casts invite us to place these plays beside each other and, in so doing, come away with a new understanding, not only of these works, not only of these playwrights, but of ourselves. Can great theater do more?

Theater for a New Audience presents August Strindberg's The Father and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House in repertory at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place) in Brooklyn through June 12. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call Ovationtix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.tfana.org.


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Middle-Class Morality on the Block

Compared with A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts usually has gotten short shrift as a dramatic document about women’s rights, even though its protagonist, Mrs. Alving, is as modern and self-sufficient as any Ibsen heroine. Richard Eyre’s astonishing adaptation, which runs only 90 minutes without intermission at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, confirms that Ibsen’s 1882 play is as timely as ever. None of the three acts feels foreshortened—it’s a full meal. It is also a magnificent production.

Both Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, who championed the Norwegian playwright’s work in England, kicked Victorian melodrama to the curb, as it were, and introduced politically and socially conscious realism to the stage. At BAM, Eyre makes one feel the full weight of the change.

With only five characters, Ghosts also displays Ibsen’s characteristically tight plotting. Lesley Manville’s Helene Alving has welcomed her son Oswald (Billy Howle) home to Norway after has lived abroad for years. His father has died, and a new orphanage named for him is to be dedicated by Pastor Manders, a family friend, and, it turns out, someone with whom Helene had been in love. Indeed, she had left her husband, Captain Alving, with the intention of taking up with Manders, then a divinity student. Though the spark between them might easily have been fanned into a flame, he persuaded her to return to her home, where she remained as Alving’s seemingly loyal wife, though she eventually sent Oswald away to boarding school. Two additional characters, old Jacob Engstrand, a coarse and brutal carpenter with the idea of opening a “home away from home” for sailors, and his daughter, Regina, who works at the orphanage and loathes her father, are on hand as well.

As Mrs. Alving, Manville, a veteran of gritty realism in many Mike Leigh films, shows a character with personal composure and limited patience for cant. When Will Keen’s straight-laced, judgmental Manders notices pamphlets about feminism and free love on her parlor table, he takes her to task, but she challenges him—has he read them? “One must rely on the views of others,” he says, a response that echoes today in arguments involving morality and the church.

An early contretemps over whether the new orphanage should be insured provides an example of Ibsen’s mordant humor—something that director Eyre doesn’t stint on, in spite of the playwright’s reputation for seriousness. Manders understands the importance of insuring the new building, but he’s afraid that taking out insurance will imply that God can’t be trusted to protect the structure. When Helene finally acquiesces to his foolish view, Manville unveils the character’s frustration in the way she opens a desk drawer and tosses her spectacles and a blotter in. And Keen brings out every bit of Manders’s cluelessness, yet draws sympathy for a man who adheres to his hidebound principles, whose so-called morality has exposed his venality. The ghosts of the title, says Helene to Manders, are “the things that come out of the past…not just the people that haunt us, but what we inherit from our parents: dead ideas, dead customs, dead morals. They hang around us and we can’t get away from them.”

The strong stream of anticlericalism that runs through Ghosts (along with mentions of incest, syphilis, and sexual freedom) made it as big a target for condemnation as A Doll's House, and even today one can feel the earth tremble as Oswald excoriates Manders and his views. Oswald, who has lived in Paris among bohemians, espouses free love and expresses his disdain of Norwegian “worthies” who come to Paris looking for the sexual indulgences that they disapprove of at home. (One feels at times that Ibsen, who lived abroad for more than 20 years and carried on with a much younger woman, is speaking through Oswald.)

Bourgeois morality is also represented by Charlene McKenna’s Regina. She is ready for middle-class morality, and is attracted to Oswald—and vice versa. She wants the orphanage job to support herself and stay away from her father, who’s a drinker and a laborer. Old Jacob, too, schemes for advancement, but he also suspects that society would rather keep him in his place, so he latches on to Manders as an ally. One of the open questions in Eyre’s production concerns whether Manders or Engstrand is responsible for a disaster that upsets everyone’s plans.

The production, from the Almeida Theatre in London, looks terrific. Peter Mumford supplies crucial lighting, at two points a saturated red, and Tim Hatley’s set points up the compartmentalized lives of the people involved. Most important, Manville’s last scene shows that Ibsen still has the power to deliver a kick to the gut. 

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts runs through May 3 at BAM, Harvey theater. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and matinees are at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets may be obtained by calling 718-636-4100 or at the BAM box office at 651 Fulton St. in Brooklyn.

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Nora Today

When staging plays from the theatrical canon, contemporary directors are confronted with the question: why should audiences care now? While Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is undeniably a classic, its relevance always demands redefinition. Although Ibsen claimed the play was humanist rather than feminist in its politics, his protagonist Nora has been touted as a theatrical harbinger of feminism; theater critics have long been denoting the parallels between Nora’s struggles as a wife and mother and those of contemporary women. In the Young Vic’s latest production of Simon Stephens's adaptation of the play, however, A Doll’s House takes on a fresh relevance for audiences at the BAM Harvey Theater. Director Carrie Cracknell resists taking any particular stance on capitalism, gender roles, marriage, or other institutions – but instead focuses on hitting and maintaining a shrill note of anxiety produced by such oppressive institutions. In an economical and political climate that seems more precarious than ever, this mood of institutionalized anxiety is certainly something most of us can relate to right now.

In an endeavor to mimic reality, a traditional box set for a 19th Century piece of realism consisted largely of a drawing room (or kitchen, as in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie), with doors leading to other rooms in the house or to the outside. While intricately decorated, this one-room design emphasized the claustrophobia felt by the characters, who are often entrapped within the oppressive structures of society. For the Young Vic's production, Ian MacNeil’s rotating set defies traditional realism’s claustrophobic designs in favor of a cinematic view of Nora and Torvald’s middle class flat. To watch the characters move inside this dizzying and fascinating carousel is a true marvel to behold. It gives the audience an unfolding panoramic view into the daily lives and private moments of the characters, allowing us to see Nora’s face when she drops the façade – a privilege not afforded by box sets.

Though MacNeil’s set offers a cinematic peek into the characters’ personal spaces, the acting is not cinematic at all. While Hattie Morahan’s bravura performance as Nora certainly stood out as breathtakingly original and honest, Cracknell clearly encouraged the entire cast to be unafraid of bold choices. When eliciting money or favors from Torvald (played compellingly by Dominic Rowan), Morahan’s Nora became as cute, shivery, and saucer-eyed as a baby Disney animal. In a room by herself, however, and left alone to her own inner demons, we can watch Morahan melt into an inner world of anxiety and tension that we begin to understand belies her cuteness.

Audiences of A Doll’s House have come to expect the play’s final note: Ibsen’s famous slamming door. As Nora leaves her home, her family, and the only world she’s ever known, we hear her slam the door behind her. In the Young Vic’s production, Nora does slam her door, but it makes more of a clatter or click than a slam. While possibly disappointing for those of us who want a nice loud slam!, the more subtle departing sound of Morahan’s Nora concludes the production on an ambiguous note. A loud door slam might suggest that Nora is liberated and on to bigger and better things, but Cracknell does not give us this satisfaction. Indeed, Nora steps forward with the same anxiety-ridden-confidence that a college graduate steps forward into today’s precarious job market. It is this raw, situational anxiety that makes Cracknell's production a timely rendition for today.

A Doll's House is playing at the BAM Harvey Theatre (651 Fulton St. in Brooklyn) and has been extended to run through March 23. Performances are Sunday at 3 p.m., Tuesday-Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased by calling 718-636-4100 or by visiting bam.org.

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