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A CurtainUp Phildelphia Review
A Doll's House

There are people you love and those you'd rather be with. Nora
Doll's House
Suli Holum (Photo credit: Jo Stromgren Kompani)
How interesting for a Norwegian theater artist to stage this innovative homage to the great son of Norway who disliked his homeland so much that he spent his most productive years as an expat in Italy and Germany, where he penned A Doll's House. Jo Stromgren admits to taking "respectfully irreverent liberties" with the text. Ya think? While getting Ibsen's basic story across, he takes liberties-plus by using contemporary American lingo, deconstructing and reconstructing the play, substituting visuals for talk, and stripping away sub-themes along with any trappings added during well over a century of previous productions. Stromgren pokes deep holes into the idea of the drawing room setting and invites the absurd apparatus of the subconscious to operate.

Set pieces with outsize aims serve practical and thematic purposes, externalizing interior states with the aid of dramatic lighting design. A miniature house, which can be turned every which way, is a cute little prison that plays confinement and pressures against the big gray world outside that's full of intimations, smoke, and unrestrained imaginings. The sonic background includes odd noises and banging, sometimes tangos, and sound-whooshes on occasions when smoke billows out. At key moments the famous aria from Catalani's La Wally wafts in.

In just one hour Stromgren and his Kompani blaze a beeline to the center of Ibsen's work which, by late nineteenth century standards, had already been pared down to its bare essentials. Among this production's missing elements are the three children, Christmas, New Year and its symbolism, and sufficient exposure to Torvald. And it's almost shocking that in this physical theater piece Nora's several dances aren't here. The place where she dances around a bit is during a gratuitous coin toss game that transpires as the audience enters the theater. The macarons, however, made the cut.

Suli Holum's Nora rings true and bracingly clear, like a tinkling bell on a cold day. A modern heroine, Nora laughs a lot to cover her desperate unhappiness. She's beginning a process of liberating herself from what she doesn't consider a real marriage. Several years before, when her husband, Torvald was sick and needed a change of climate, she secretly forged paperwork and borrowed money from an untrustworthy source. She feels that her husband must not know this until she's old and has lost her attractiveness, for it's risky and he couldn't handle the humiliation. However, the lender, Krogstad (Trey Lyford), shows up and wants a favor in return for his silence (no, not what you may think). His very presence causes anxiety. Now she's compromised.

Nora appreciates that with his promotion to bank manager her husband, who prizes repute above all else, is "willing to take those shady cases." Leonard C. Haas makes an excellent Torvald, although this key character is downplayed in this iteration. Even Ibsen is fuzzy on Torvald's specific psychology beyond his concern for his reputation.

A suitably rumpled Dr. Rank, Nora's good friend who would be more if she allowed it, is afraid his "internal economy is bankrupt." He's concerned about morally corrupt people holding jobs that should be filled by upstanding citizens. Pearce Bunting brings out Dr. Rank's appealing qualities. In a grumbled meta-comment on the set design concept, Rank is rankled by a "house built by Lilliputian carpenters." Meanwhile Nora's friend, Mrs. Linde (Mary Lee Bednarek), encourages her to get past the lies and tell her husband what's going on. When Torvald eventually finds out and forgives his little songbird for her indiscretions on his behalf, that seals it. It's over. Time for Nora to hit the road, end all deceit, and find out who she is and discover what she thinks.

In this otherwise sharply trimmed adaptation, explication near the end spews out in over-recapitulation. The essential story is in there and the show is wonderfully innovative, yet somehow this playful but obviously serious effort to get to the truth of the work feels like style over substance. Or is that a point of the production? That style is substance? Finally, after the all the banging of the little house's doors, the last legendary door slam happens only in spirit.

A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Jo Stromgren
Directed by Jo Stromgren

Cast: Mary Lee Bednarek, Pearce Bunting, Leonard C. Haas, Suli Holum, Trey Lyford
Scenic Design: Jo Stromgren
Lighting Design: Stephen Rolfe
Costume Design: Bregje van Balen
Sound Design: Lars Ardal
Choreographer: Jo Stromgren
60 minutes
Part of FringeArts Curated festival, which runs from Sept 3- 19
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 9/06/15 performance. FringeArts, Columbus Blvd at Race St. Philadelphia
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