A Dollís House by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Paul Walsh. Directed by Sam Gold.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I canít take this into consideration."
Disaster! It strikes a marriage. It strikes a relationship. It strikes a theatrical production. The first instance is in the play by Henrik Ibsen now on stage at the Nikos Stage, the second theater at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The second occurrence may be expressed as my give and take with the press office at that same organization while the third is, quite simply, the barrage of theatrical errors that confound this production.
Ibsenís play about a marriage threatened by an error in judgement, a mistake made by a trophy wife attempting to save her husbandís life, is one of the great classics of all time, often credited with beginning the movement of modernism. Itís final scene so startled the world at the time that the ultimate resonance of a heavy door clanging shut has remained the clarifying moment in the transition from romanticism to realism. Ibsenís portrait of the collapse of the marriage is still intact, but in this production the impact of the final moment is lost in a mess of a realization that alters the focus of the play from the newly found strength and determination of the wife to the narcissism of a vain husband who only has the resource of violence to express his frustration at someone else discovering and disclosing who and what he has been.
The strain in my relationship with this theatre has to do with the foolishness of placing a critic on the side of the theater where nearly 30 percent of the play cannot be seen or heard. It would seem to be the job of the press department to walk the theater, see the result of faulty design and try to compensate for that in the placement of people whose jobs consist of reporting to a waiting public what they saw and heard.
That, in brief, brings me to the failure of this production, the multiple failures, actually. Scenic Designer David Korins has created a set for this play that does just about everything possible wrong. Downstage right is a fireplace unit and a bookcase that lead to two handsome pocket doors which open onto another room, presumably the study or office (in this instance possibly the dining room) of Torvald Helmer. The angle of the setís line from the proscenium takes the wall upstage and out of view of people sitting in the house left boxes and even, to some extent from people on the left aisle. Major scenes are played in this space and voices are muffled, actors cannot be seen, action is missed and involvement is destroyed.
Similarly, when the doors are open and the audience should see the inner set, and - as it turns out - the set behind that set, nothing is visible to almost half the audience. Stage left (or house right) is a double staircase unit that is mostly hidden from the audience members on the house right side of the stage. Once again, major moments take place there and a good deal of the audience is unable to see it. I stood in the back of the house for the third act, hoping to see everything. I still couldnít, but what I saw included stagehands walking around backstage between the window units and the lights and a line of light leaking out between the proscenium and the house wall which gave me insight into the entrances of each and every actor and extra coming down the stairs I could no longer see.
This is just poor design work. It is a black mark against a director who clearly never checked the sightlines before staging key scenes.
It is an extremely poor introduction to a new producer who is really responsible for what appears on her stages. She has the right, and the responsibility, to veto production elements that clearly diminish the impact of any play she produces. For all involved this is just sloppy production, something I donít expect to get even in a high school show. As Nora, Lily Rabe gives about one half a performance. From the outset she is all nerves, exposed ends flaring. She is hyper for two and a half acts and finally settles in for a conversation with her husband that ends with decisions that we should understand. She makes this difficult by swallowing final phrases of sentences, by dropping final letters of words, by rushing her lines to the point of making me wonder when her train is scheduled to depart. It is a very disappointing performance of a career-making role.
By contrast, as her friend, Kristine, the remarkable Lily Turner gives the finest performance of the evening. She exudes subtleties and nuance. She is an enigma from first to last, her true intentions never really clear, but her effect on the final outcome is deliciously brought to bear. It is a rendition of a secondary role that is almost stellar.
Josh Hamilton plays all the worst of Torvald Helmer, Noraís husband, to the best of his ability. This character is a sexist, emotional abuser who has kept his wife an adored doll, her feelings and her needs never examined by him. Hamilton makes this all appear natural and easy. He often delivers lines that should make us cringe from their lack of sensitivity with so much honesty that we can buy into the lies he is creating for himself. Itís good work from this actor.
Adam Rothenberg, as Nils Krogstad, brings real menace into the proceedings although often without verbal clarity. Handsome, dark and visually overpowering, he loses impact through this oddity of speech, not a mush-mouth but somehow without getting his lines across the gap from the stage to the audience.
Matthew Maher does the difficult job of playing the confidante who will not live to see the outcome of the heroineís heroism. He does it as well as he can; itís a thankless role and he seems almost too young for it. Zainab Jah played Anne-Marie, Noraís ex-nanny and now her maid, with "island" zest and a good sense of the role. Sol and Rose Sutter are Noraís children and they are quite good, as is Tashi, playing Tashi. No dog should ever be the highlight of a drama like this one, but Tashi actually is.
Sam Gold proves his inexperience directing this play. With what appears to have been very little control over the production design, seemingly no control over the performers, and obfuscation the outcome of his apparent lack of understanding of the playís effect on world drama, his production of this play ranks among the worst productions of anything that I have ever seen. Kay Voyceís costumes are a mixed bag of time, place and correctness. Ben Stantonís lighting give a new meaning to "What? Who? Where? Huh?" and Jane Shawís sound design work is at its nagging worst in the lack of the all-important slamming of a door at the end of Act Three. And thatís at the end of the act, Mr. Gold, not three minutes later before Mr. Stantonís final fade out.
Did I say disaster? I meant outright murder! Good riddance to this production.
No Production Photos Available
A Dollís House plays on the Nikos Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival at the Ď62 Center for Theatre and Dance, located at 1000 Main Street in Wiliamstown, MA through July 31. For information and tickets, call the box office at 413-597-3400.