This is a thoroughly pedestrian production — wobbly, uninspired, and often downright tedious.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. Adapted by Bryony Lavery. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the BU Theatre, Avenue of the Arts, Boston, MA, through February 5.
By Bill Marx
Why produce A Doll’s House today? Nora’s door slam shook the world in 1879, earning dramatist Henrik Ibsen plenty of moral condemnation for daring to turn a woman who leaves her marriage and children into a society-defying heroine. Reviving the script’s initial shock (and spicing up the plot’s melodrama) takes an enormous amount of theatrical chutzpah. The best example of that would be director Lee Breuer’s amazing Mabou Mines production of the play, last seen in Boston in 2011. That memorable mind-blower included male dwarfs and acts of cunnilingus, with Nora whipping off her wig at the end of the play to reveal that she is bald. That Nora begins her search to become a human being at ground zero, including discovering her gender. It was a bold, avant-garde treatment that some found tasteless, but I found exhilarating.
The Huntington Theatre Company stays away from the experimental, so I wondered why the troupe bothered to stage a script that cries out for rethinking/renovation. It turns out this straightforward (albeit with colorblind casting) revival is not even particularly well done. It is a thoroughly pedestrian outing — wobbly, uninspired, and often downright tedious. Only Boston’s blurb-o-matic theater critics — far more conventional than Nora’s small-minded hubby — could huzzah such a prosaic treatment. This is Ibsen’s once furious radicalism made safe — here Nora’s door slam emits a whimper rather than a bang.
Director Melia Bensussen and her performers stay well within the realistic bounds of Ibsen’s text, but they don’t seem to have a firm sense of dramatic tone. Partly this is because the performers come off as revved-up and strident, working so hard on generating humor (to help hold onto the audience’s attention during the long speeches?) that they often can’t bring the focus back to the serious when called for. (On the night I attended, Krogstad’s talk about suicide to Nora was greeted with laughter.) Then there is the adaptation of the text by Bryony Lavery, which updates the language in ways that sends us into an indeterminate nether world, wobbling uncertainly between today and yesteryear. (Really, would any of Ibsen’s characters ever say “Que Sera, Sera”? Doris Day as Nora?)
Andrea Syglowski struggles to infuse some life into Nora, ending up giving us a different character in each scene. Her Nora starts off with an irritatingly hysterical laugh that doesn’t make psychological sense; at this point in the action she feels safe (Krogstad has yet to begin blackmailing her). Given this weird giggle, even the insensitive Torvald would have called in a shrink. That girlish (?) nervousness gives way to a one-note fretfulness, followed by flickers of alarm. The backbone of Ibsen’s character is missing; Nora is more resourceful and nervy than hubby. Her decision to leave the marriage, once Torvald’s hypocrisy is revealed, is a revelation of her strength, a strength that we have grown to recognize. None of that slow build — under the tightening noose of social ostracism, accusations of being a moral reprobate — is here. When Nora tells Torvald off in the final scene, the best that Syglowski can do is generate a kind of “you go girl” agreement. The HTC tries to make up for this anticlimax with a visual coup de théâtre, making the most of its doorless minimalist set and its Munch-esque impressionistic backdrop. Don’t worry, the famous door makes its appearance and the sound of Nora’s slam is amplified, big time — but that is an admission of defeat, an obvious confession that the performers have fallen short.
The supporting cast is mostly drab. Jeremy Webb is one of the least ill and unsavory Dr. Ranks I have ever seen. Ibsen plays with the paradox that the man who diagnoses society’s illness is the sickest of all. Webb is robust — where’s the suburban decrepitness? My favorite Torvalds tend to be decent fellows, well meaning but enslaved to the mask of bourgeois rectitude. Sekou Laidlow is too much the sadistic mechanical bully, seeming to enjoy his ability to lord it over his hapless little bird. Syglowski changes from scene to scene; Laidlow is boringly stuck in place. There has to be the sense on stage that, at one time, this was a believable match, that something is being lost. Marinda Anderson’s Christine exudes some bits of quirky energy, but Nael Nacer’s Krogstad is monotonously belligerent and/or whiny — until he is hit by the love bug, and the transformation is convincing if a bit too sudden.
So why did the HTC stage A Doll’s House? I haven’t the faintest idea. Because it is comfortably feminist? Because people have heard of it? Maybe some audience members remember reading it in college? As a devout lover of Ibsen, I applaud any opportunity to view the works of the master. But a number of his masterpieces are rarely staged and merit a shot, particularly those that veer away from psychological realism and political platitude. For example, there’s Ibsen’s poetic epics Peer Gynt and Brand, both of which have been adapted into English, brilliantly, by the late British poet Geoffrey Hill. (These would be American premieres, I believe. And there is a Boston connection, because of Hill’s years of teaching at Boston University.) These are works of vast imagination, playful and provocative. I would also love to see a production of Ibsen’s macabre fable Little Eylof, a dark saga about the death of a child and its aftermath. Why A Doll’s House? Another example of one of our major theater companies fearing to venture out of its (or our?) comfort zone.
Of course, A Doll’s House still has plenty of anarchistic kick if you look for it. All the characters (not just Nora) are dolls in a society whose diseased ideology privileges deceit and materialism, class snobbery and dirty secrets, male fantasy and female passivity. Sound familiar? Critic Eric Bentley pointed out that the “glory of Ibsen is that he refused to make certain fatal separations. He refused to separate the individual from the collective, the personal from the social.” This play is not just about a bad marriage or a woman going in search of her self. The entire doll’s house must be demolished if there is to be justice, if men and women are to become fully human. In his farewell address, Barack Obama said that “for too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.” It takes courage to leave the echo-chamber doll houses most of us inhabit. By way of Nora, Ibsen goes one step further than Obama — you have to prick the bubbles you live in on your way out.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.