Henrik Ibsen’s A DOLL HOUSE Translated by Local Playwright

READINGS / WORKS IN DEVELOPMENT: We love to see new work developed by Utah theatre artists. On occasion, we are invited to performances of pieces (sometimes still in development) that are staged as a reading. These events differ from standard productions in that more focus is placed on the script, and less on the technical elements of the production. With that said, we’d like to shift the focus of our “reviews” for readings. More emphasis will be placed on the script and at the end we’ll comment a bit on the production. It is our hope that more Utah theatre patrons will seek out opportunities to participate in, and encourage, the development of new theatre in our great state. Thank you for reading!

SALT LAKE CITY — If you type, “I’m first and foremost a human being” into Google, you’re likely to get a hit that contains reference to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Considered by many to be one of the first truly feminist plays written, Nora (our main character) proclaims these words towards the end of the show. Even Ibsen himself considered this work to be more about human rights than just women’s rights.

Local playwright, Eric Samuelsen, has translated Ibsen’s work—originally written and performed in 1879—directly from its Norwegian origins.  Joining with Plan-B Theater Company, tonight’s production was a free staged reading to benefit the America Civil Liberties Union of Utah and Planned Parenthood. The performance took place in the Jeanne Wagner Theatre of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

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STORYLINE: As this is a classic tale and this production was a one-night engagement, I’m not going to shy away from spoilers. A Doll House explores the transformation of Nora, a submissive woman of the 1800’s who seems to exist only to provide her husband a life of ease and domestic comfort. Years ago, to save her husband’s life, she borrowed money for a trip to Italy. Because of her naivety, she forged her dying fathers signature which indebted her to an unscrupulous man. Now, as the truth threatens to destroy her marriage she awakens to the reality of her oppression and her own strength.

REACTION to the SCRIPT: Knowing this was a considered a feminist play, I expected Nora to be the clichéd strong defiant woman one might find in the movie Iron Jawed Angles about the women’s suffrage movement. Instead, I found her character to be stereotypical in the submissive, naïve way she seemed to play to her husband’s whims. In fact, I felt she enabled and perpetuated the repressive environment. In turn, it made me have more sympathy for her husband Torvald, albeit a jerk, because he was just as much in the wrong as she.  Both were victims of their time, playing the roles that society expected of them.

In the end, Ibsen’s Nora has a breakthrough and becomes that defiant woman I longed for. With head held high, she leaves Torvald to find herself  – insert applause. For me, was it too little, too late? Yes.  By that time, I was fed up with her batting her eyelashes at her male counterparts to win their praise and attention.

It is said that Ibsen based his Nora on a real life friend of his who actually went through much of what Nora did. The ending in real life found Ibsen’s friend committed to a mental institution by her husband. Now, take this piece of information and combine it with the fact that this work is over 130 years old and we have an entirely new picture.

I felt Eric Samuelsen did a wonderful job on his translation. I very much felt for these characters – even if it was frustration. As he mentioned in a recent interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Ibsen can be quite funny. My favorite piece of humor came from none other than Nora when she tries to clarify the difference between her husband and a close male friend of hers. “There are the people you’re in love with and then there are the people you’d rather spend your time with.” From the uproarious laughter in the audience, I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed this.

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A DOLL HOUSE was presented for one night only on August 28, 2011.

My only thought for Samuelsen was that it felt too modernized at times. Having a character know how to “put away” an alcoholic drink, or even meek little Nora swearing after Torvald, brought this story screaming into the present. For these roles to truly work and be believable, I wish it had stayed rooted in 1879. I appreciate the difficulties of translating this work to English and in a majority of the show the selection of English words was right on. However, some choices broke the eloquent flow of the late 1800’s and left me wondering what time period Samuelsen was shooting for.

REACTION to the PERFORMANCE: I’ve ranted a bit about this story, as it did frustrate me but that’s not a bad thing. The way Nora was treated (and behaved) was astonishing but true to the times. Lauren Noll played the part of the typical 1800’s woman, bound to serve her husband in the home, with subtle boldness. She let glimpses of that defiance leak through, giving us just enough to hang on to. Her transition from mild-mannered to proud was just as wonderful and seamless as Noll’s recent transition in the lead role of Gypsy Rose at the Egyptian in Park City.

Perry played the part of a self-centered, passive-aggressive, oppressive husband with such humanity that I sympathized with him a great deal and my heart broke for him in the end because he truly didn’t know any better. He was still a jerk and for him to deliver some of the ignorant lines he was asked to and still remain sympathetic, it was impressive.

I didn’t like Krogstad (the bad guy), from the second he walked on stage. This speaks to the power of actor Tobin Atkinson’s presence. While both Dr. Rank and Mrs. Linde were played well, I felt like I really didn’t get to know either of them or their motives. Whether this was lost in translation or a weakness in Ibsen’s play (which I suspect), I’m not really sure.

Did I mention this was a script-in-hand reading (meaning the actors actually carry the script with them throughout the show)? I could hardly tell. The scenes were so well rehearsed that one barely noticed the actors briefly glancing down for reference.

This was my second fund-raiser/script-in-hand event with Plan-B and as always, I was impressed with the professionalism in which their productions are pulled off. A Doll House was frustrating, thought provoking and a stimulus for discussion on social expectations and the ability, no the right, to challenge and defy what is expected of us.

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