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The Women Who Live In “A Doll’s House”

by Karen Tortora-Lee on January 22, 2010

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A Doll's house

Henrik Ibsen would be proud – Hip Obscurity’s somewhat modern adaptation of the classic A Doll’s House (which runs till the 24th at the American Theatre of Actors) belongs entirely to its women.

Taking on a classic is always an interesting choice – one can play it safe and give the audience the same story it’s known for years, running the risk of an entirely boring production, or one can try and find all the hidden metaphors with the result being something far from what the author intended but a new experience for the audience. So I can imagine there were a lot of creative and directorial choices director Anthony Castellano had to make when going through this text in the hopes of bringing something fresh and new to it.

For those not familiar with A Doll’s House it might take you off guard to find the flighty, “little songbird” Nora Helmers (Jessica Cermak) foolishly flitting around her house, babbling about her macaroons and her shopping, and standing (or virtually kneeling) in awe of her husband Torvald (Perri Yaniv) who in contrast is a cold, mirthless, distant banker who commands and dismisses his wife as if she were … well … a doll. But for those familiar with the story Ms. Cermak’s performance is right on the money — her daffy little twirls, her vapid head tilts, her stuffing her face with cookies till she can’t speak clearly and crumbs are tumbling all about her.

When her long-gone friend, Christine Linde (Kimberly Woodman) reappears on their doorstep the scene between the two women which details the many years of hardship, secrecy, and even hidden victories as well as hidden regrets rings true. Ms. Woodman brings a haunting charm to her performance … there’s a sadness in everything she does and she manages to telegraph years of hardship and emptiness with just the way she holds her tea cup or perches on the couch.

Conversely when Torvlad and his friend Doctor Rank (Alban Merdani) and even his subordinate at the bank, Nils Krogstad (Nathaniel Fremuth) speak with each other, or speak with (rather I should say … speak to) the women, they are stiff, guarded and wooden. Even during each man’s most emotional scene (and they all get one) they do not drive forward with passion, only with controlled rage, or controlled lust, or controlled sadness. Whether this was a directorial choice or just a matter of casting is hard to decide, but I couldn’t help mentally giving a little push in the hopes that the men would break loose a bit and show us what they were really made of.

An unexpected delight, and probably the role where the update to 1958 is most in evidence is the role of Anne, the Maid fully embraced by Melissa Scott. On the page Anne is nothing but a bridge between those at the door and the Helmers but director Castellano – emboldened by the update to a more ebullient decade – gives Ms. Scott a dialogue-less but delightful scene which is unfortunately over all too quickly. As Anne finds herself alone in the living room facing her daily chores she puts on a record and begins to dance. This one small gesture immediately gives an entire snapshot of Anne – her spirit, her joy, and who she is when she’s not being woken up in the middle of the night to answer the Helmer’s front door. It was an unexpected treat.

Overall A Doll’s House is, and always has been, a wonderful story of a woman’s emancipation from a husband who never saw past her beauty, her titillation, and her girlish seduction. Nora’s ultimate actions are quite brazen for an 1879 woman. Over 100 years later it’s not as brash to see a woman stand up to her husband, in theory, however there will ALWAYS be spouses (husband or wife) who feel powerless and in the shadow of their partner, and it will ALWAYS be an interesting story to see how that spouse ultimately finds their voice and takes charge of their own life. While I don’t think it was all that clear that this was 1958 and not 1879 (I would have preferred a few more tweaks, and even a few more liberties with the text) I did enjoy seeing these strong actresses fill their characters with the nuances and flavors of bold women.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
January 14 – 24, 2010
American Theatre of Actors (314 West 54th Street)
Tickets are $18 ($15 for students) Call 1-800-838-3006 or click here.
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