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Three Is A Charm
by Anthony Chase
A look at a few local productions wrapping up this week
The debut of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House in 1879 is generally regarded as marking the arrival of the Modern Drama. Nora’s defiant gesture, asserting her own humanity by slamming the door on a suffocating marriage has resonated across the globe and across time.
After the play’s opening in Copenhagen, the play ignited such discussion that for a year Scandinavian dinner invitations might include the request, “Guests are kindly asked not to discuss Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House!” In China, the impact of the play was so powerful that early 20th century feminists in that country were known as “Chinese Noras.” (Mao’s wife played the role during her premarital actress days in Shanghai).
Indeed the play embodies a foundational concept of political science, that there is always an oppressor and an oppressed. In this case, Torvald Helmer lovingly oppresses his wife Nora, as her father had before him. The man is oblivious to the fact that Nora’s cleverness has sustained his household, his health, and even his financial stability.
When Torvald learns that Nora’s artful management of the household finances has included a forged document that puts him in social peril, he momentarily turns on his little doll, viciously threatening to withhold her meager privileges and to banish her from contact with “his” children.
When the crisis is averted, Nora is disinclined to be forgiving. She leaves.
Ingmar Bergman’s 1981 adaptation of the play, called Nora, is one of many returns to the Helmer home. This version is pared down from Ibsen’s three act version to 90 minutes with no intermission—not incidentally as played at Torn Space Theater, where the pacing slows the proceedings down to significantly more time, and requires an intermission. Bergman conceives of the play as Torvald’s tragedy.
Under the direction of Robert Waterhouse, with an expressionistic set by Kristina Siegel, the production looks very smart, and the world of the play has been populated with some very compelling actors. Here, the action has been moved from 19th century Scandinavia to America of the 1950s. In this setting a patriarchal marriage more overtly resembles spousal abuse.
Bonnie Jean Taylor’s Nora is the classic 1950s upper middle class housewife who knows when to lie to her husband, usually for his own good. PJ Tighe’s Torvald begins as benignly loving, but by degrees becomes increasingly menacing.
Geoff Pictor, as Korgstad, the banker who knows Nora’s secret and tries to use the information to his own advantage cuts a sadly and appropriately desperate figure. Kristen Bentley plays Christine, Nora’s world weary and wise friend from her school days, a person far more stable than Nora could hope to be. And finally, David Hayes plays Dr. Rank, the wealthy but terminally ill family friend who secretly loves Nora with devoted focus.
The elements that have been assembled are excellent, but there is something out of kilter here. The pace for this familiar drama is inexplicably ceremonial and slow. Our progression through the story does not seem continuous. Instead, we witness disconnected moments.
Bergman’s conclusion to the play has Torvald try to cement the rescue of his marriage with a symbolic act of sexual bonding. After submitting to this, the next morning Nora is firm in her resolve to leave. In this production the lights come up and we find Nora dressed, seated at a bedside chair, staring down at her husband who is naked and sleeping. The tables have turned. She is empowered, he is vulnerable. The image is arresting.
The Torn Space staging, however, does not trust this commanding moment. Nora does not hold her ground. The tension is quickly dissipated. Torvald awkwardly slips on his boxer shorts; Nora disperses the moment with chaotic movement around the room; she unnecessarily raises her voice, undercutting the impression that she is entirely in control. The dynamic is lost.
The set, by the formidable and colossally talented Ms. Siegel, is entirely white and very handsome. In some critical instances, however, it fails to accommodate the requirements of the play or to account for audience interpretation. Each character is relegated to a defined waiting space around a central playing area representing the Helmer home, which works very well. Siegel has conceived a really spiffy mail box that glows when Korgstad inserts his incriminating blackmail letter. Nonetheless, the space proves to be distractingly awkward for the actors to navigate and fails to accommodate one of the most celebrated moments in Modern Drama—Nora’s final exit. There is no door, and I suspected that director and designer might cleverly have devised a moment in which Nora would walk out into the world of the audience, joining modernity, but no. At the critical moment, the actress maneuvers her way upstage, through a space formerly relegated to her husband and up toward the back wall. A curtain falls and Nora descends past the horizon, out of our view. Someone near me whispered, “Did she kill herself?”
Nora’s future might be uncertain, but her decision should not be. Oddly, this pared down visit, intended to heighten the drama, meanders more than the original.
Nora concludes its run this week.
BOTH YOUR HOUSES
In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Maxwell Anderson, a Broadway titan of the time, spun out a marvelously engaging yarn about corruption in the United States Congress. His play, Both Your Houses, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and has appeared in the repertoire from time to time ever since.
The Kavinoky Theatre has staged a production, directed by David Lamb, that will conclude its run this week.
In the play an idealistic young Congressman, played here by Christopher Evans, sets out on a wild crusade to clean up the government. The fun of story is the same as the guilty pleasure of any soap opera. We have arrived at scoundrel time, and want to see who can outfox who.
At a recent matinee, the Kavinoky production lacked bite in Act One. We get little sense of the distinct personalities of these characters, or the notion of scoundrels we love to hate (or hate to love). Deliciously talented Aleks Malejs and Jessica Wegrzyn as a scheming Lady Macbeth and an ingénue seem to have traded roles, blunting the punch of their performances. An eye-popping set by David King, featuring a stunning view of the Capitol dome, is sometimes slogged down in set changes, including one inexplicably at the top of Act Two.
After the confusing set change, Act Two did snap into tighter shape and we began to get the flavor of Anderson’s play. (Other than the inelegant movement between scenes, the production does look great, including costumes by Benjamin Streeter Clothing Design). The shifting votes of the shifty members of Congress are especially enjoyable. If you can stay with it, Act Two is worth the wait, and it is a pleasure to see so many fine actors assembled for this production.
STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY
Also closing on December 6th is the Paul Robeson Theatre production of Stompin’ at the Savoy, a fun excuse to roll out some of the most beloved tunes of the American songbook. While it is always a pleasure to see the veterans of the Robeson stage, Mary Craig (who directs this production), Sandra Gilliam, and Chalma Warmley, I was most delighted to see the showcasing of some formidable new talent.
Melinda Capeles Rowe and Johnny Rowe, a real life married couple who have recently relocated to Buffalo from Orlando make a marvelous addition to our local talent pool. They play an adoring but perpetually bickering couple out for their anniversary at the Club Savoy where she was formerly a performer.
That is enough of a hint to this flimsy excuse to perform a whole lot of great music and to indulge in a whole lot of clever clowning.
Young performers Perris K. Fortson and Ayana Naomi Williams are appealing as the “chocolate kisses,” hardworking nightclub dancers with seemingly limitless talent. Robin Barker, who choreographed the production, is adorable as a “Savoy Dancer,” tapping away like a female Matthew Clark (who turns out to have been her teacher!)blog comments powered by Disqus
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