KNOCK KNOCK: Theater companies embark on daring collaboration
Few moments in theater have stimulated discourse on the role of women in society as compellingly as Nora’s abrupt departure at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. “The door-slam heard ’round the world,” as it’s been called, was one of the boldest acts in all of literature, yet it remains almost as controversial today as it was in 1879. “As I now am, I am no wife for you,” Nora told her astonished husband, Torvald, adding that she felt like more like a “doll” than a real person, molded by the men in her life into something she barely recognized. As for the couple’s three children, Nora felt they were better off with the nanny. “I know they’re in better hands than mine. As I now am, I can be nothing to them.”
For years, audiences have pondered the question of “What happened next?” In 2017, the American playwright Lucas Hnath created a “sequel” that so delighted audiences and critics that it was nominated for eight Tony Awards. Recently the Unicorn Theatre secured the local rights to Lucas’ A Doll’s House, Part 2, and this set into motion something that happens far too seldom here: Two companies put their heads together and figured out how to stage both plays within a few weeks of each other.
“Actors Theatre had wanted to produce an Ibsen for some time,” said the Kansas City Actors Theatre’s Darren Sextro, who will direct both plays. As soon as the Unicorn had secured rights to the sequel, Darren sat down with his longtime friend and colleague, Cynthia Levin (the Unicorn’s producing artistic director), and began building a joint team.
From August 7th through the 25th at H&R Block City Stage at Union Station Kansas City, Actors Theatre presents Ibsen’s play, with Hillary Clemens, Todd Lanker, and Carla Noack in lead roles. From October 16th through November 10th on the Jerome Stage, the Unicorn presents A Doll’s House, Part 2, which takes place 15 years later, featuring Manon Halliburton and Lucas Black.
It’s because of the children that Nora remains a controversial figure, and Darren said that’s one of the reasons why we still talk about Ibsen’s play. “If it was just that she had left a marriage, maybe this wouldn’t be so rich for discussion. But the fact that there are children involved complicates things.” Moreover, he said, “there’s not a lot of text that supports the idea the Nora is struggling with leaving her children.”
For 19th-century audiences, the shock of A Doll’s House was that a woman asserted her equality by leaving a domineering husband. Today’s audience may well applaud this act, while at the same time condemning Nora for leaving the kids. “Her struggle is over her relationship with her husband … not over a decision about her children,” Darren said. “And that’s definitely something that, during the rehearsal process, Hillary and I will be exploring.”
Lucas has mined this very point, as well, by including Nora’s youngest daughter in his sequel: When Nora knocks on the door for the first time in 15 years, the now-grown Emmy confronts her mother about her dubious decision, and many of us today are likely to question it, as well. “There is Emmy, all grown up, able to speak for herself about what this abandonment meant to her,” Darren said. “It makes it more complicated.”
Still, Lucas Hnath’s play remains a bit of a “lark,” and when Darren saw the Broadway production he said “the audience howled through the entire thing.” While A Doll’s House is “a drama, arguably a melodrama, with some references to humor,” Darren said, “Part 2 is hilarious. And my responsibility as a director is to make sure it’s fully mined for all the comedic Easter eggs that Lucas has written into it.”
Though the casts for the two productions differ (everyone in Lucas’ play is supposed to be 15 years older), many of the design elements will be seen on both stages. “The scenic designer, the properties designer, the sound designer, the costume designer, and the dramaturg are shared,” Darren said, adding that he wanted to keep some of the design surprises a secret: “I don’t want to give away too much.”
But one secret he would reveal: He has produced his own adaptation of the Ibsen, based chiefly on the first English version by a woman: Henrietta Frances Lord’s 1882 rendering, which Darren has supplemented with glances at the more well-known translation of William Archer. “I sort of hewed closely to her translations because I had this idea that … she was female and she was translating this sort of female-centric piece,” Darren said. “And I wonder if that brought anything to it. … The jury’s still out on that.”
As for Lucas’ play, the Unicorn’s presentation will be a treat for an audience hungry to see one of Broadway’s most successful recent hits of “straight theater.” Directed by Sam Gold and starring Laurie Metcalf as Nora and Chris Cooper as Torvald, the play was one of the sensations of the 2016 -2017 season: Laurie walked away with a Tony Award for her performance, which Ben Brantley described in The New York Times as “magnificent … exquisitely poised between high comedy and visceral angst.”
Ben went on to reflect on why audiences regarded this sequel as somewhat of a revelation: “Every character … is very much a living individual: a solipsist, as we all are, with his or her own firm and self-serving view of things. They’re all right; they’re all wrong. But at least they’re talking, which is what it takes to build a world that everybody can inhabit.”
The Actors Theatre’s production of A Doll’s House also stars Carla Noack, Christina Schafer, Tyler Alan Rowe, and Brian Paulette. The Unicorn’s production of Hnath’s sequel includes, in addition to Manon and Logan, Kathleen Warfel (Anne Marie) and Marisa Tejeda.
It’s true, Darren said, that Todd and Logan, who play the younger and the older Torvald, are in fact not that far apart in age. “We’ll see what happens when Logan grows a beard,” said the director with a laugh, adding however that the casting is in keeping with the idea that Lucas’ Torvald has in fact not moved forward one inch since Nora left. “The playwright has described Torvald as a man frozen in time.”
Nora, on the other hand, has become a fully realized human being: and a famous author, as did the real-life woman (Laura Kieler) on which Ibsen based his Nora. And to underscore the continued pertinence of Ibsen’s dramatic conceit to contemporary life, Lucas plays tricks with language throughout, mixing archaic expressions with contemporary references as if to “challenge us to question when this is set,” Darren said. “He invites the audience to recognize that these might be issues that women still deal with today.”
—By Paul Horsley
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