Living Doll

Ibsen, via Bergman, gets a treatment thats too lively

One of the most famous stage directions in drama—hell, maybe the onlyfamous stage direction in drama—is in the last words of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House.Depending on the translation, the direction reads something like "from downstairs comes the sound of a heavy door slamming shut." The reverberations of that slammed door would soon echo across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, as A Doll's Houseignited protests, bans and impassioned debates about the subservient role of women in late-19th-century society.

While significant, Ibsen's play, like most of those canonical works written by the European pioneers of modern drama (Chekhov, Strindberg, Pirandello, etc), is tough on the ears. It's wordy, repetitive and stilted. Not a great deal happens other than characters sitting around gabbing.

Yet invariably, theater companies large and small return to Ibsen, usually either putting radical new spins on his fossilizing words or staging to-the-letter productions in order to attempt to prove how resonant his ideas, if not his language, are to today's world.

And there's the rub: women may still work under a collective glass ceiling, but in a world of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Silverman, it's difficult to argue that women aren't the dominant primate type on the planet. So why even bother revisiting a time when they clearly weren't? That's why, unless you're a student of theater, women's suffrage or the late 19th century, A Doll's Houseis a tough sell. As is the current Hunger Artists' production of famed filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's 1979 stage adaptation.

Bergman cut a third of the text, eliminated superfluous characters, and removed most of the furnishings and intricate stage direction. The result: a stripped-down version that aims for the heart of Ibsen's play—the central romance or lack thereof between Nora and her husband, Torvald—without cutting off the circulation to the audience's buttocks.

But even though it moves relatively quickly and is helmed by one of the county's best directors (Shannon C.M. Flynn) and an equally skilled cast, this Housestill seems drafty and musty.

There's a great deal of vitality to the two central actors. Terry Mowrey attacks the role of Nora, a woman who, in trying to help save her husband's health, borrows money to travel to Italy. Years later, that decision—and her choice to not tell him—threatens to ruin his career. Mowrey's Nora is robust, never descending into the wan mousiness that afflicts many portrayals. Yet a too-lively Nora makes her ultimate decision of whether to leave a dead marriage less believable. It seems from the start that she has sizable cojones, making her choice between herself or her role as wife and mother much less agonizing.

Scott Manuel Johnson is equally hardy as Torvald. Typically portrayed as piously stifling, this Torvald erupts and berates, using his voice and sometimes even his body to dominate. That's a remarkable shift from the Torvald template, a character who is condescending, patronizing and dismissive but rarely seems on the verge of blackening his wife's eye. Johnson's boisterousness is interesting to watch, but, again, it undermines the play's climax. In most versions of this play, Nora seems most frustrated by her husband's indifference and complacency, and that's what fuels her desperate decision. But this Torvald, with his manhandling, barking and sneering, is anything but indifferent.

Bergman's adaptation seems less interested in examining gender relations than in the dissolution of a loveless marriage. The same is true for Flynn's stripped-down version. It's a relationship play, as opposed to a social-statement play. That makes it emotionally compelling, but it doesn't feel much different from any other treatment of shallow, manipulative and deceitful relationships. It's more soap opera than dramatic masterpiece. And a pretty thin soap opera at that.

A Doll's House at the Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803; www.hungerartists.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. $15-$18.

 
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