Review: “Nora” at Shotgun Players

It appears that 2017 is the year of cut-down Ibsen productions in the Bay Area. First, you had the Cutting Ball’s 75-minute edition of Hedda Gabler, of which the less said the better, and now Shotgun Players is staging a production of Nora, a version of A Doll’s House written by Ingmar Bergman (of The Seventh Seal and Persona) that lasts 95 intermission-free minutes. Unlike Hedda Gabler, however, this Nora is a winner, a fully engaging evening of theatre, sparse-yet-effective, and currently being produced in Berkeley in a top-notch staging until April 16th.

A Doll’s House is considered to be one of the foremost European dramas of the 19th century. Premiering in 1879, it shocked audiences around the world thanks to a twist ending that featured Nora, a housewife and mother, realizing her ultimate unhappiness in her societal position as a woman and deciding to pack her things and get the hell out of her current life to go in search of herself. Women in domestic dramas at the time were typically given the ultimate fate of either shooting themselves or returning back to their lives, content with where they are. The idea that a woman could find happiness and find it without her presupposed societal role was a radical one at the time—radical enough for the work to be considered a landmark of nascent feminist literature.

Ingmar Bergman, who prepared this version of A Doll’s House to be performed in repertory with his adaptation of Miss Julie and the stage version Scenes From a Marriage, saw the work less as an example of feminine liberation and more as “the tragedy of [Torvald] Helmer…he’s a decent man who is trapped in his role of being a man”. This is visible in his cutting down of the text, which excises almost half of the written material, and in which Torvald is presented far more sympathetically than he usually is, with much (though not all) of his condescending nicknames and what the millennial argot might refer to as “mansplaining” removed to create an overall less antagonistic character.

The changes create a final scene in which Nora’s decision is shown to cause far more pain than in Ibsen’s original, and though Nora’s leaving is still ultimately the right choice for herself, it’s less inspiring and more tragic. Bergman thus repurposes Ibsen’s central message to be less “humans must liberate themselves from toxic societal structures to find happiness” and more “humans must liberate themselves from toxic societal structures to find happiness, no matter what the cost (and there will be costs)”.

This might be a more potent message, but it’s a less satisfying conclusion, and Bergman’s adaptation makes one miss Ibsen’s formal cushiness, in which he allowed all events more than their fair share to breathe; the proceedings are a little cramped when stuffed into such a tight space. Thankfully, Bergman was no dramaturgical slouch, and he managed to turn A Doll’s House into a concise, 5-character quasi-thriller with a relentless forward thrust and no extra fat left on the bone. Those familiar with the Ibsen original will wish that they were watching the Ibsen original, but for newcomers, Nora is short enough to be palatable and gets the point across well-enough. Frederick J. and Lisa-Lone Marker’s translation starts off rather uncomfortably foreign-sounding, but quickly picks up steam and hits the bullseye by the time the play reaches its climax.

Shotgun Players is one of the best companies in the region, and the chance to get to see such top-notch productions where the actors are close enough to touch is a uniquely thrilling opportunity. Nora is exactly in line with what audiences would come to expect from Shotgun Players, which is to say that the production could hardly be bettered. Beth Wilmurt, the director, is one of the finest actors around (she gave what I might consider to be the definitive performance of Martha in Shotgun’s own Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last year) and, as one might expect, she gets performances of an extremely high caliber from every member of her 5-person cast. I was also pleasantly surprised at her ability to stage physical action, with her visual sensibilities running towards images of symmetry and her actors always in constant cycles of tension and release with each other. I would say that I look forward to more plays staged by her in the future if I weren’t so eager to see her back onstage as an actor.

As mentioned previously, the cast is all-around excellent, but there were three cast members that particularly stuck out as warranting mention. Nora Helmer is one of the great roles of the western theatre, and Jessma Evans is more than up for the challenge. Her performance is one of constant and gorgeous awkwardness, always unsure of what to do with her body, before finding her grounding in the final scene. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and marks her as an actress to watch in the coming years. If any company is planning on producing The Seagull and hasn’t found their Nina yet, I think I might have found her for you. Michael J. Asberry is wonderful as Dr. Rank, with his booming baritone voice perfect for the character’s ruminating on the nature of mortality. Also of note is Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, who plays Mrs. Linde, Nora’s childhood friend, and gives an anti-performance of remarkable conviction that works surprisingly well. The physical production is most impressive, with Maya Linke’s beautiful and expressionistic set contributing to a coup de théâtre that makes as much dramatic sense as it does dazzle the audience.

I wish that every element of this production, the cast, the director, the set, were for a production of A Doll’s House rather than Bergman’s Nora, but that does not mean that this Nora is not a thoroughly satisfying and intellectually invigorating evening of theatre. It’s doubtful that a better production of Ibsen will be seen in the Bay Area this decade.

Nora runs in Berkeley at the Ashby Stage through April 16. Tickets and information available here.

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