‘A Doll’s House’ entices audience with emotional drama

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Author: Vivien Reece

“Is that my little lark twittering out there? When did my squirrel get home?” Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, performed by Occidental College last weekend, introduces its main male character with these lines. From the first moments of the play the members of the audience seem to squirm at the inappropriateness of Torvald’s patronizing tone, the baby-talk sound of his voice and the insincerity of his conversation. The emotionally abusive relationship between husband and wife serves as a vantage point for viewing the failures of society to treat women as equal human beings and to allow individuals to live up to their potential.

Occidental’s production of  “A Doll’s House” succeeded in portraying the characters with such humanity that every character was at times both admirable and detestable. It was even possible to empathize deeply with Torvald because of the sweet, cool tones of his voice and his doting, loving, albeit condescending, comments to his wife Nora.

Giulia Davis (junior) played the lead role of Nora and convincingly portrayed the energy, psychic pain and the determination of her character. The intuitive, totally natural appearance of her person, down to the last whisper and the last raising of the eyebrows, took a lot of practice, according to the actors in a post-performance question and answer discussion.

“Giulia was ready to take on this challenge,” said director Alan Freeman, professor emeritus. Davis, as the lead, appeared in all but one scene of the whole production, but the other cast members contributed equally to the quality of the performance. The cast rehearsed twenty hours a week since the beginning of the semester, and the precision and quality of their performance were clearly the rewards of such hard work.

“It’s never been out of my head since the first rehearsal,” Davis said about the play and her character. When getting immersed into a subject, actors often report feeling consumed by their roles and embrace the opportunity to practice their behaviour acting.”It’s a way both philosophically and physiologically an actor can take ownership of a role, can become compassionately connected,” Freeman said.

In this production the members of the audience, too, were forced to become compassionately connected and take ownership of the characters. Of course, most plays require that the audience suspend disbelief, and in this way all audiences must take a leap of faith in order to connect to the characters and empathize. Occidental’s production, however, took the suspension of disbelief further, to a higher level and to a greater sense of irony because of the lack of many props and set pieces.

The actors had to pantomime movements when props were unavailable, such as setting up Christmas decorations, eating food, or most commonly, opening and closing doors. This made the suspension of disbelief more difficult because the events on stage were so obviously unreal and performed. To contemporary audiences most pantomimes must seem inherently humorous, and members of the audience laughed at these moments until they became accustomed to it. After a while, however, the movements seemed natural enough, and the audience stopped reacting to the pantomimed moments.

Although Ibsen did not suggest that props be bare or in some cases invisible, this Occidental production takes advantage of the philosophical and metaphoric meaning of empty space. The reasons the production went “low-tech, no-tech,” or, without a high level of tech work such as lighting and props, were pragmatic-to save money, time and space, and focus more on bringing the characters to life. Although the lack of props was originally unrelated to art, ultimately the emptiness helped this Occidental cast perform a unique and chilling rendition of the play.

The bareness of the stage created a sense of claustrophobia because the audience members sat along the walls of the room, extremely close to the actors. “We wanted the audience to be the walls [of the house],” director Alan Freeman said. “It is so distressing to be that close to such psychological pain.”

As the characters shout, whisper, laugh, flirt and cry onstage, the audience members sit mere feet away from them or mere inches in some cases. The lighting causes the audience to be completely visible to each other and to the actors because only simple overhead lights were used, rather than stage specific lights. The visibility and the closeness caused the boundaries between the audience and characters to blur slightly because of this inevitable consequence of the “no-tech” style.

Other boundaries remained completely clear despite their invisibility. Only one door of the house had a physical setup; the rest existed only as breaks in the lines of tape. Yet the actors made the doors seem palpable with their convincing pantomime actions of opening and closing them. The most important door in the play, the one that Nora slams to bring the close of the final act, was a real door and was located in the corner of the room.

It is often said that when Nora slams the door of her home, breaking off her allegiance to husband, children, society’s expectations of women and even to the audience, she opens the door of the modern era. For contemporary audiences, though, perhaps she slams the door in the face of all boundaries that constrain her potential for authentic self-expression.  

“There are contemporary connections we can see,” Freeman said. “Emotional abuse, all the clichés of family dysfunction, the inability to deal with each other in a truthful straightforward way, the illusion of control in our lives, manipulation of others through lies and deceit and the dilemma of freedom-how it doesn’t always lead to happiness-these are themes which audiences will always relate to.”  

Occidental’s performance made the play relevant 130 years after its first production, revealing not just the inherent quality of the play itself but also the talent of the student actors.

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