Ibsen Meets Barbie in Theatre Intime’s Stylized “A Doll’s House”; Classic Drama about a Wife’s Self-Discovery Gets Modern Viewpoint
“A DOLL’S HOUSE”: Theatre Intime has staged a reimagined “A Doll’s House,” presented February 18-27 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Ariel Rockman, Ibsen’s 19th-century drama is transplanted to a literal, contemporary dollhouse. Above: Nora (Caitlin Durkin) spends time with one of her “children.” (Photo by Rowen Gesue)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Late in A Doll’s House Nora, the play’s protagonist, says this in a confrontation with her domineering husband: “I’ve been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child. And in turn the children have been my dolls.” In a recent production, that literally was true.
Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has presented (February 18-27) a stylized production of A Doll’s House. Working from Rolf Fjelde’s translation of Henrik Ibsen’s script, Director Ariel Rockman brings a contemporary, imaginative viewpoint to the 1879 drama about a woman’s self-discovery.
There is a marked change from the visual aesthetic of many productions. Set Designer Kat McLaughlin replaces the usual staid, if opulent, 19th-century parlor. Instead, we see bright pink walls and furniture that resembles dollhouses that one might see in commercials for Barbie toys. McLaughlin also is the sound designer, and makes the doorbell an imitation of those heard on Barbie houses.
In a program note Rockman explains the reasoning behind this approach. “I was inspired to set the play in a literal doll’s house to emphasize how Nora is a doll-like figure to everyone in her life,” the director writes. “I also wanted to show that she has agency in turning herself into a doll for other people.”
Rockman suggests that this “reimagining of the show does not take place in a defined time period.” Nevertheless, the style and color scheme of the costumes (designed by the director) evokes a visual aesthetic that was in vogue in entertainment of the early 2000s.
Throughout most of the play Nora wears a bright pink dress — which, Rockman explicitly states, is inspired by the Barbie “Happy Birthday” Doll (2004) — that evokes the character of Elle Woods from the film (and subsequent musical) Legally Blonde. A scene in which the pink-clad Nora talks to her friend Mrs. Linde, who wears black, inescapably recalls Glinda and Elphaba in the musical Wicked (2003).
A Doll’s House takes place shortly before Christmas. A perky Nora Helmer (portrayed by Caitlin Durkin) enters, carrying shopping bags full of gifts for her three small children. In this production the bags resemble something out of American Girl.
Nora’s husband Torvald (Luke Pascucci) enters and chides her for spending so much money. Because Torvald is due to be promoted at the bank where he works, Nora suggests that they can “squander a little.” Torvald abruptly admonishes her, “No debts! Never borrow!”
The couple receive two visitors. One is Nora’s down-to-earth friend Mrs. Linde (Saareen Junaid, whose matter-of-fact delivery provides the needed contrast to Nora’s exuberance). The other visitor is the terminally ill Dr Rank (infused with gentle sincerity by Christien Ayers), a family friend.
We discover that Torvald became sick, and Nora borrowed money so that they could travel (on the doctors’ advice) to improve his health. Torvald knows nothing about this illegal loan, which Nora obtained by forging her father’s name on the bond. At that time women were forbidden to conduct financial transactions without a man’s authorization. Nora has been working and saving to repay the debt.
After Torvald and the visitors leave, Nora spends time playing with her children. In this production, that entails going over to a colorful toy cabinet (on which is perched a small pink Christmas tree), and retrieving three dolls. One eerily looks like a plastic version of Nora, who talks to it and gazes contemplatively at it, likely seeing herself. It adds an interesting layer when we notice that the dolls “portraying” Nora’s children resemble adults.
The moment makes for a striking tableau, and foreshadows two lines of dialogue that are heard near the end. Nora tells Torvald that her father called her “his doll-child, and he played with me the way I played with my dolls.” In that same scene she says, “I thought it was fun when you played with me, just as [their children] thought it fun when I played with them.”
Nora receives another visitor: Nils Krogstad, who works for Torvald, but is about to be let go. Krogstad, who transacted Nora’s loan, blackmails her into persuading Torvald not to fire him. At this she is unsuccessful; Krogstad later places a letter, detailing her forgery, into Torvald’s locked mailbox. Mark Rosario succeeds in making Krogstad not overtly menacing, but clearly dangerous.
During intermission it falls to Kate Stewart, who plays the Helmers’ servant Anne, to move props and clean the furniture. In the play itself Anne acts oblivious to the situations unfolding in the household, but Stewart’s facial expressions make clear that Anne can tell there are problems, despite Nora’s synthetic cheerfulness.
After the Helmers return from a Christmas party, Torvald discovers Krogstad’s letter. Torvald berates Nora, calling her an immoral woman who is unfit to raise their children. When Krogstad sends another letter returning the bond and forgiving the loan, Torvald attempts to take back his words.
At this point, lighting designer Nicabec Casido changes the color of the lights, many of which have been bright pink to match several other production elements, to gray. Nora changes out of her pink party gown into a darker dress that is conspicuously longer than the dress she wears for most of the play. As Nora’s outlook and communication style change, so does much of the visual aesthetic.
Feeling betrayed by Torvald’s behavior, Nora announces that she is leaving him; she is unable to stay with a man who has become a stranger to her. Torvald tells her that she has a duty as a wife and mother (even though he did not want her around the children a few minutes ago). She counters that she has a duty to herself as well, and she cannot be a good mother until she learns to be more than a plaything. She exits, and we hear a door slam.
Nora’s departure elicits a role reversal of sorts. For the party, Rockman outfits Torvald with a suit that makes him rather resemble a Ken doll. Now Torvald is the doll in the dollhouse. The tableau lets us consider that, while Torvald’s behavior is indefensible, he too has been cast into a role by society.
Durkin gives an outstanding portrayal of Nora. She perfectly captures the duality of the character’s style of interacting with people (especially Torvald). For most of the play the performance is by turns vivacious and seductive — in a word: showy. This allows the contrast to be sharp when this veneer is replaced by cold, unalloyed bluntness. Nora has learned to find and use her own voice, and Durkin’s performance makes that self-discovery convincing.
Pascucci, too, succeeds in his depiction of Torvald. His sturdy delivery of the character’s gruff, patronizing dialogue makes his dominating condescension a palpable force against which Nora must push in order to break free. Pascucci is careful not to overplay Torvald’s gruff irritability, infusing him with enough charm that we understand why Nora has been so loyal to him up to this point.
Changing the setting to a literal dollhouse adds to the play a surprising element of fun and accessibility. It also allows us to contemplate the extent to which gender roles and societal expectations are placed upon us during childhood. The student-run Theatre Intime has continued a particularly strong season with this vibrant, unified production.
For information about Theatre Intime’s upcoming productions, call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org.