Toy housing market: Ibsen’s Doll

Shaking the Tree's dollhouse-bright production of Ibsen's masterpiece "A Doll's House" brings its issues vividly into the 21st century

Everyone wanted a piece of Henrik Ibsen, for good or bad, after he wrote A Doll’s House: Marxists, Communists, anarchists, feminists, censors. The trend hasn’t ended, and it’s a guffaw that a playwright who wrote about objectifying people had to politely defend his autonomy and privacy. In his way, Ibsen pioneered a path for such future artists as Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and J.D. Salinger to create provocative material and then shut the door to personal access.

Shaking the Tree opens its own door to the secrets of Ibsen’s house. The Portland theater company likes to play, right from the beginning of its handsome and lively new production of his 1879 masterwork: We enter the theater and are in the dollhouse. The molded orange door frame that Nora will exit to the outside world and freedom is the same pathway we pass through to find our seats. There is hardly a stage: it’s an environment, and the only things that separate us from the performers are our seats.

Nikki Weaver as Nora, Jacob Coleman as Torvald. Photo: Gary Norman

Nikki Weaver as Nora, Jacob Coleman as Torvald. Photo: Gary Norman

The breakdown, in brief: Nora Helmer (in this production, the sparkling and generous Nikki Weaver) is a married woman with three children who has a platonic love affair with her husband’s best friend. Torvald, her husband, was ill, and she forged her father’s signature to get a loan. The loan was from a lawyer named Krogstad, a social outcast who had a relationship with Nora’s childhood friend, Kristine, and both are eventually employed by Nora’s husband. Over Christmas, Nora’s self-imposed exile into false happiness is upturned by the realities of corruption, death and change. Once the door is open, there’s no going home: Nora leaves her husband and children to become a full human being, not the shadowy image of who she is supposed to be.

Jenny Ampersand’s set design is dear, an iconic nod to the simple domestic flourishes found on classic Fisher-Price toys. A stark contrast of white accent flirts on the edges of monochrome rooms. Like a Rankin-Bass stop-animation film from the ’60s, one color dominates each space. The dining room table is purple, the chairs are purple, the cups are purple. Think Santa’s workshop in Rankin-Bass’s classic Rudolph film. A Norwegian sensibility fills the atmosphere with curves, and the intentional choice of the props makes you feel as if you’re a toy put away on a Louise Nevelson shelf. The walls are framed by a muslin fabric, and the lights echo back the colors of each room, lifting us up, around and through. We are not an audience looking straight ahead.

To life, as through a glass darkly. Photo: Gary Norman

To life, as through a glass darkly. Photo: Gary Norman

Samantha Van Der Merwe, director and leader-at-large of Shaking the Tree, and the show’s production team have made a sophisticated ecosystem for the characters of A Doll’s House. As in a Mike Nichols film, each character has a signature color, which is repeated in their clothing, the items they own and handle, and the rooms they take up. This charming pattern echoes back to Ibsen’s play, in which each scene reveals and reinterprets a single word over and over, much like Homer’s poetic returns, giving us a rhythm of ideas evolving and a canopy of thoughts under which each character lives. As the play begins it’s an inviting space, but  as the threads of past decisions unravel the fortunes of the characters, we struggle as an audience against the pulls of social convention, the play itself, and Ibsen. Van Der Merwe and her team home in on Ibsen’s genius to bring to life these three tensions, and by doing so create a Doll’s House on steroids.

Weaver is a lithe, generous, spirited Nora, and her gaiety sparkles on the set. Jacob Coleman’s Torvald is a little boy running around in military short pants. The two begin the play with a sexiness based on the bargaining of money for physical intimacy. They dance, cajole, and appreciate one another. Yet by the end of the play audience members have moved their postures as far back in their seats as possible, incredulous at the film-covered pet names with which Torvald has serenaded Nora. Coleman’s Torvald is like a sick kitten playing at a ball of yarn, otherwise known as his wife. Some interpretations of A Doll’s House put the blame for the eruption that occurs in Nora’s lap, making her seem heartless and self-involved. In this production, it’s clear by evening’s end that Torvald is the controlling narcissist. Although more than a hundred years have passed since Ibsen brought us this play, the elements of a toxic relationship haven’t changed. Shaking the Tree brings the primary elements of dysfunction to the surface.

A bright confining playhouse of color. Photo: Gary Norman

Rea and Weaver: a confining playhouse of color. Photo: Gary Norman

When Nora’s childhood friend Kristine comes to ask for help, there is a bleakness to her celebration of Christmas, as if all the snows of winter are an empty invitation. Jamie Rea’s Kristine plays foil to Nora from the outset. She’s got soul, character, and above all a softness from being maternal in her own right, not through the lens of a man. Kristine is more composed, in traditional mourning costume and her hair neatly bound: she’s the opposite of the fresh and pastel-figured Nora, whose hair is barely held in by a clip. These symbolic contradictions reinforce the way in which their lives pan out.

Ah, and Krogstad. Matthew Kerrigan makes his entrance in an upturned mustache with Van Dyke and patted-down hair as the sometime villain of A Doll’s House. Like Kristine, he is neat and precise. Not mincing words or intentions, Kerrigan makes Krogstad a black weighted magnet in the face of the Helmers’ forever intended and superficial joy. Kerrigan’s comic and physical acting background are restrained in this role, placed into an emotional backwater that makes Krogstad’s transformation from social outcast to an everyman full of folly believable. When Krogstad and Kristine have their coming-to-Jesus moment and confess to trying to revive their unrequited love affair, the scene sparks from the unexpected elation that breaks out when all the chips are down. The little glances and creaky sounds from their voices as they agree to trust again are magnificent. This time around with A Doll’s House it’s not Nora’s liberation philosophy that emerges heroic, but these two in their performance together.

Ben Newman is Dr. Rank, the real owner of Nora’s heart. Rank is on his deathbed, passing through the veil and leading into Ibsen’s next play, Ghosts. His life is unwinding like the Helmers’, but his has been given answers. The conclusion is in his last scene with Nora: Weaver and Newman exchange long hard glances, and a pregnant silence fills the spaces between, sometimes broken by Weaver’s stutter or a ticked smile. In letting go of Dr. Rank, Nora has let go of any moments of authenticity. Leaving her marriage and her three children is made a physical act: whatever had any meaning to her life is permanently gone with Rank’s death. Newman begins his portrayal of Rank as a kind of H.G. Wells professor at the roundtable salon, but in diminutive strides he becomes more transparent; his physical and intellectual weight checks out. Much like the business cards in Torvald’s mailbox that signal Krogstad’s death, and like the transparent screening of the dollhouse walls we are in, Rank’s death is a symbolic passing that ushers in Nora’s change.

Van Der Merwe’s direction has brought into full spectrum the dynamics of the play, capturing the human drama that made it an upstart modern classic. It would be amusing and fun to imagine that women haven’t been still left behind economically, socially and politically in the 21st century. Theater can once again shake its powerful head and put its own genealogy into the debate.

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Shaking the Tree’s A Doll’s House continues through May 7. Ticket and schedule information here.

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