Fragile ‘Doll’: ‘Nora’ at Shotgun
“Look into any man’s heart you please, and you will always find, in every one, at least one black spot which he has to keep concealed.”
– Henrik Ibsen, The Pillars of Society (1877), Bernick, Act III
Before the show began at the Ashby Stage, we audience members couldn’t help but notice that the theatre was unusually cold. Meat locker-cold. Given the origins of the play we were about to see, one man sitting to my right quipped that the in-door temperature was an attempt by Shotgun to replicate a traditional Norwegian winter. Looking back on the night, I wonder if it was an attempt by Shotgun to foreshadow the chilly relationships of the players we would soon see?
Nora is Ingmar Bergman’s streamlined 1981 “adaptation” of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic. I put “adaptation” in quotes because as I watched the play I had a devil of time trying to figure out what was different. Yes, it removes minor characters and keeps the Helmer children off-stage, but Bergman’s version is slavishly devout to Ibsen’s. It wasn’t until I got home and cracked open my old college Ibsen book that I noticed the minor changes (Nora’s macaroons are changed to licorice, and her scandalous “Hell and damnation!” line is changed to the more contemporary “Kiss my ass!”). But most of those cuts would be made by a director. Had Shotgun just staged an edited version of the original, I doubt anyone would notice.
But perhaps that’s the point – to highlight the fact that Ibsen’s text was just as relevant in the 20th century as it was in the 19th, and now again in the 21st? It isn’t as if the struggle for women’s rights has, despite many strides, suddenly stopped. Indeed, Shotgun is advertising this show by highlighting Sen. Mitch McConnell’s recent sexist-insult-turned-feminist-rally-cry “nevertheless, she persisted”. What’s more, the theatre’s themed cocktail for the production is a tequila-based concoction called – I shit you not – “Tears of the Patriarchy”, which the menu describes as being “brought to you by fragility”.
This is a thing. A savory, delicious thing.
It’s hard to argue that the play has lost any power after more than 100 years. Unfortunately, that power is muted in Shotgun’s new production. As visceral as the words remain, they aren’t coupled with the actions to match.
Nora Helmer makes no qualms about her status as the spoiled wife of banker Torvald. And why should she? It wasn’t all that long ago when money was scarce and her husband was in poor health. Now that their fortunes have changed, she feels she’s entitled to enjoy the good life with her husband and children.
But this day brings a number of surprises for Nora. The arrival of an old friend from school and an employee from Torvald’s bank threaten to shake the very home Nora holds together. As old secrets are revealed and new secrets are kept, Nora is forced to reassess her value in the perfect little house she calls home.
Nora is the second of two recent Bay Area productions featuring Ibsen’s two most (in)famous heroines, and they both suffer from opposite versions of the same problem: tone. Whereas the other show – Hedda Gabler at Cutting Ball – made the mistake of playing the dramatic highs for belly laughs, this production seems to eschew emotion all together. As directed by Beth Wilmurt, the actors are blank slates. Staging often consists of two actors merely standing apart from one another delivering their lines robotically. It made me wonder if Wilmurt’s intention was for the audience to project their own interpretations onto characters whose full knowledge is often debated. (“Does Nora know of Dr. Rank’s crush on her?” “Does she flirt with him?” “Is Kristine’s plea to Krogstad sincere?”) In any case, it robs the characters of any real spark.
For instance, Dr. Rank’s unrequited attraction to the married Nora is often seen as “sad” at best, “pathetic” at worst. (Even worse than that, misogynists use Rank as an example of a “nice guy” being relegated to the “friend zone”. Research that idiotic bile at your own risk.) But as played here by Michael Asberry under Wilmurt’s direction, Rank comes off as asexual with a child’s grasp of romance. And he isn’t the only one. There’s no sense of romance, past or present, between Krogstad and Linde; there’s no real tension or anger between Krogstad and Nora. The actors say the lines, but that’s all they do.
Surprisingly, the only palpable moment of passion comes near the end when Torvald and Nora head towards the bedroom, and that just felt uncomfortable.
Torvald (Kevin Kemp) and Nora (Jessma Evans). Photo by Pak Han.
Clockwise from L: Kristine Linde (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), Nils Krogstad (Adam Elder), Dr. Rank (Michael J. Asberry), Nora Helmer (Jessma Evans), Torvald Helmer (Kevin Kemp). Photo by Pak Han.
Set by Maya Linke. Photo by me.
Nora (Jessma Evans) and Torvald (Kevin Kemp). Photo by Pak Han.
What the productions lacks in dramatic tension it tries to make up for in production value. The spartan set by Maya Linke follows the text in its streamlining. Featuring a single upstage wall papered with a face-pattern of Victorian-era women, the wall slides further downstage as the play goes on, continually cramping the action on the faux-marble or -wood floor. A table or sofa is usually brought in by Nora through the black sliding doors. Not one of Linke’s more outlandish designs, but an interesting example of how to stage the play with limited resources.
Maggie Whitaker’s costume choices are well done, but make the play hard to place time-wise. Torvald’s suit is sharp, but I imagine Nora’s wearing pants all through the first act (not shown above) would be anachronistic to the play’s original 1870s setting. Sound designer Matt Stines seems to have taken inspiration from David Lynch, attempting to show tension with a low-frequency droning that just distracts from the action. Better served are Allen Wilner’s lights, which could have told the entire story on their own.
As the audience takes their seats, the pre-show music includes classic selections from Vashti Bunyan (“Jog Along Bess”), Joni Mitchell (“Both Sides Now”), Patsy Cline (“A Church, A Courtroom, and The Goodbye”), and Nina Simone (“My Baby Just Cares for Me”). It’s a great way to start a classic show about a woman whose emotions and sense of self-worth are pulling her in opposite directions. When Shotgun first announced this would open their 2017-18 season, both they and we expected to be three months into the administration of the first female American president. Had that been the case, this play would have been a powerful reminder of the rocky road that led to such an accomplishment. Instead, it serves as further evidence that we not only have a long way to go, but that we’ve suddenly reversed our forward momentum.
This world, country, and city still need stories with the messages of A Doll’s House. It’s just a shame that this production is more interested in telling the audience about that power rather than letting it be shown for itself.
Nora runs until the 16th of April at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.