Welcome to the Dollhouse

The re-envisioning of classic works has long been a popular pastime, particularly in the world of theatre. It isn’t every day, however, that one gets the chance to encounter an adaptation of an internationally acclaimed “masterpiece” by a famed international filmmaker. That is exactly what is in store for those who catch No Strings Theatre Company’s latest production, “Nora,” at the Black Box Theatre.

Far from a freshening up of a turgid Victorian melodrama, “Nora” is a concise modification of Henrik Ibsen’s Norwegian feminist manifesto “A Doll House,” written in 1878, by legendary cinematic auteur and prolific playwright in his own right, Ingmar Bergman. Quaintly stodgy and a bit laborious in the first act, the play ignites with explosive inevitability in the second, giving audiences a glimpse into a life not so very unlike our own some 130 years later.

In the title role, Marissa Bond is a delight as the flighty, manipulative, somewhat insensitive gossip Nora Helmer. Swinging from girlish flirt to calculating schemer, Bond explores every facet of the character, sometimes with little more than a raised eyebrow, a smirk and/or a wave of a hand. Her delivery, though at times a bit histrionic, is perfectly in keeping with the melodramatic nature of the script.

Marissa Bond and Eric Brekke are Nora and Torvald Helmer, Ibsen characters given the Bergman treatment.
Marissa Bond and Eric Brekke are Nora and Torvald Helmer, Ibsen characters given the Bergman treatment.

As her arrogant, overbearing and clueless husband Torvald, Eric Brekke slowly builds his character from a stern, condescending cipher, who speaks to his wife as though she were a naughty three-year-old in the first act, into a bellowing powerhouse in the second. In fact, it is in act two that Brekke truly displays his chops, swinging from irritably amiable drunk, to raging, inconsolable terror and finally to emotional cripple, stripped bare by his wife’s cruelty, with an ease that is astonishing to watch.

The cast is rounded out by newcomer Rachel Ribeiro – who is a revelation as Nora’s long-suffering, dour and rigid childhood friend, Christine – Rafael Medina, as elegant, yet desperate, blackmailer Nils Krogstad and Shaun Hadfield, as Torvald’s amicable childhood friend, Dr. Rank. All are solid and perfectly attuned to the nuances of the time, giving brief glimpses into lives only hinted at through Bergman’s lean script.

The production itself is a triumph for director Ceil Herman and a first-rate production team. The set is lovely in its simplicity, though it is curious that the center wall was left so conspicuously blank, while everything around it was so starkly balanced. The costumes, designed by Jeanne Luper, are simple, yet sumptuously stylish and exquisitely suited to the action.

The lighting, designed by Peter Herman and engineered by Joe and Heather Pfeiffer, is wonderfully nuanced to create emotion and range throughout the uncluttered drawing room set. Finally, Ceil Herman’s choices in the sound design, which makes wonderful use of Swedish and Norwegian compositions, is inspired and denotes the careful attention to detail NSTC’s productions are known for.

Blackmail rears its ugly head in the form of Nils Krogstad (Rafael Medina), a desperate man on a mission.
Blackmail rears its ugly head in the form of Nils Krogstad (Rafael Medina), a desperate man on a mission.

First produced in 1879, “A Doll House” scandalized proper Victorian audiences with its depiction of a strong-willed woman, thinking outside the box for the betterment of her husband and family. Ibsen was no stranger to controversy at the time and, though many hailed him as a proponent of the abecedarian feminist movement that was then in its infancy, he demurred by stating he was really only interested in social commentary of a more universal nature.

He was, in fact, a master of the form. As anyone who has ever seen “A Doll House” produced in modern times can tell you, however, sometimes one century’s scandalous hotbed of controversy can be the next century’s tepid, overbaked donnybrook. Bergman took this into account, not by bringing the action into a more contemporary mileau, but by paring down the ponderous script and eliminating minor characters that only served to muddle the proceedings. In doing so, he created a spare and competent adaptation that wowed German audiences in 1981 with its contemporary social relevance.

Does that 30-plus year adaptation hold up today? In some ways. Though the play was written over 130 years ago, and their actions may appear a bit affected, the characters are all recognizable to a modern audience. Particularly one brought up on soap operas or telenovelas. They scheme, they backbite, they behave selfishly and they casually drop revelatory hints at past dalliances, alliances and questionable actions. All that’s needed is the swell of organ music cued at appropriately expository moments to enhance the actor’s delivery.

And maybe that’s the problem. Remember, it was in the early 80s that soap operas made the leap from bathetic afternoon passion plays to blistering evening slugfests. Expectations change. What doesn’t change, however, are the actions of men and women embroiled in volatile relationships, no matter what the time frame depicted.

The drama escalates as secrets are revealed.
The drama escalates as secrets are revealed.

In the end, there are no villains in “Nora.” Nor are there any heroes. In fact, there are no redeeming qualities inherent in any of the characters on display. Each has his or her own secrets, each manipulates those around them to their own ends and each stands by the moral righteousness of his or her own actions. In this way, Nora is unflinching social commentary, pointing out the pettiness of human nature as the one defining factor throughout the ages.

If theatre is, as Shakespeare maintained, simply a mirror depicting society’s virtues and vices reflected back in their true shape, Bergman’s re-envisioning of Ibsen’s anthropological commentary is a more crystal clear and propitious indictment than any reality television show on the air today.

Performances of “Nora” are Fridays, Dec. 6 & 13, and Saturdays, Dec. 7 & 14, at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees on Dec. 8 and 15 at 2:30 p.m. and Thursday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 regular admission, $10 students and seniors over 65 and $8 for all seats on the Thursday evening performance. For reservations, call 523-1223.

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