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Nora Review: Ingmar Bergman’s Version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Nora 1 Jean Lichty and Todd GearhartWhat would make a woman leave her husband and three small children?

The reason that Nora gives in “A Doll’s House” shocked audiences when Ibsen wrote his play in 1879, and the final scene still rivets in an adaptation by famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman entitled “Nora,” currently in a competent if only intermittently engrossing production directed by Austin Pendleton at the Cherry Lane:

“You have responsibilities toward your husband and your children, haven’t you?” Torvald Helmer tells his wife.

“I have other responsibilities that are equally important,” Nora replies.

“No, you don’t. What responsibilities might they be?”

“Responsibilities toward myself.”

A woman leaving her husband these days is unremarkable, but a mother abandoning her children still gets our attention. This is one reason why some may question an adaptation that eliminates all of Nora’s children, as well as all the servants, including Nora’s childhood nursemaid Anne, who gave up the care of her own child in order to tend to Nora’s. The omission of this scene, which highlights Nora’s sheltered upper class background and arguably her selfishness, alters the complexity of the drama.

On the other hand, Bergman’s intent in his 1981 adaptation was to streamline Ibsen’s play in order to get to its essence. “A Doll’s House” has 11 characters and, as presented in a production at BAM last year for example, ran nearly three hours (including intermission.) “Nora” has just five characters and, in the Cherry Lane production, lasts about half as long (without an intermission.)

This seems better suited to the casual contemporary theatergoer (even if it causes a few awkward transitions between scenes.) In addition, the English translation by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker, which has been used in productions of “Nora” around the country for nearly two decades, is the best thing about the adaptation. No longer are we subjected to Torvald’s overbearing endearments (sample “A Doll’s House” translation: “Is that my little lark twittering out there?  Is it my little squirrel bustling about?”) We get the idea of his patronizing attitude just as clearly but more subtly and credibly. (There’s only one weird lapse, when Nora tells her friends she’d like to tell her husband to “Kiss my arse.”)

Of course, streamlining the cast puts more pressure on the remaining performers. All are fine in this production; none are consistently thrilling. One senses Pendleton’s decision to keep this a low-key affair, with a touch of elegance added by Theresa Squire’s period costumes, and Harry Feiner’s solid, naturalistic lighting and set.

It says something that, of the 15 scenes in “Nora,” only two stand out. One is the famous final confrontation between husband (Todd Gearhart) and wife (Jean Lichty), when Nora has come to a realization about the emptiness of their marriage. She has just seen how selfishly Torvald reacted to the revelation of a potential financial scandal that Nora inadvertently caused by her effort years earlier to raise money secretly in order to restore her husband back to health. But the second terrific scene is between two supposedly secondary characters – Nora’s friend Christine (Andrea Cirie) and Nora’s blackmailer Nils (Larry Bull.) Christine and Nils, it turns out, were in a relationship years before, one that Christine cruelly cut off because Nils was impoverished and Christine felt she needed to marry somebody with the means to support her widowed mother and her two brothers. Now a widow herself, Christine makes a double-edged proposal, which is mostly practical, and maybe a little mercenary, but hints at a buried hope of actual love between two characters who have become  less than savory. It’s a fascinating, complicated scene, well navigated by two pros, understated but full of feeling, that says as much as any of the better-known scenes between the two main characters about the status of women in society.

Click on any photograph by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged

 

Nora

Cherry Lane Studio Theater
Adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”
By Ingmar Bergman

Translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lisa-Lone Marker
Directed by Austin Pendleton

Cast: Larry Bull, Andrea Cirie, Todd Gearhart, Jean Lichty, George Morfogen

Harry Feiner, lighting and set designer
Theresa Squire, costume designer
Ryan Rumery, sound designer
Patricia Fletcher, dialect coach
Shelley Senter, movement consultant

Kelly Ice, Production Stage Manager

Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $46-$66

Nora is scheduled to run until December 12, 2015

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Straight White Men Review: Young Jean Lee’s Play About Reacting to Privilege

The rowdy brothers of Young Jean Lee’s stimulating “Straight White Men,” which has now opened at the Public Theater, play a board game called Privilege, where Jake draws a card that says:

“What I said wasn’t sexist/racist/homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”

Drew’s card says: “I don’t see race. Pay two hundred dollars in reparations.”

A scene like this seems to confirm what we suspected from the provocative title –that Lee, a Korean immigrant known for her avant-garde downtown theater pieces, has written and directed an acid satire of America’s de facto ruling class. But “Straight White Men,” as it turns out, is nothing of the kind. Rather, it is a sympathetic, intelligent look at a family of four men, and the different ways they are adapting to a changing world.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

 

Lest this sound too serious, Lee’s touch is light, with many delightful moments of horsing around and witty exchanges, helped along by a superb cast, in a play that takes place during a gathering of the clan around Christmas.

The merriment disguises the nearly schematic approach she takes to the characters and their adjustment. Ed, the father (Austin Pendleton), says he was raised at a different time, when nobody questioned the traditional path – “Get married, have kids, get a job….I didn’t grow up with a sense that I had any options.” On the other hand, it was his wife, now deceased, who invented that Privilege game, adapting an old Monopoly board, and we understand that it was important to both the mother and father that their children be raised with a social conscience.

Drew (Pete Simpson), the youngest, sees himself as living out the ideals set out by his parents, by writing political novels, and teaching.

Jake (Gary Wilmes) rejects the “checkbook activism” of his father, and what he sees as the self-satisfied activities of his brother. “You can’t change the system without giving up the benefits you gain from that system.” But Jake’s solution is not to try to make a difference; Jake works as a banker and refuses to feel guilty about it. However, Lee complicates this character by making him the divorced father of two black children.

Matt (James Stanley) was the oldest, the most accomplished and the most socially conscious. He got the drama teacher fired for only casting white people in Oklahoma – cue the brothers singing a hilarious rewrite of the musical’s title song, making heavy-handed allusions to the Klu Klux Klan:

Ooooklahoma Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,
Where we sure look sweet, in white bed sheets,
With our pointy masks upon our heads!

“Matt was always trying to save the world,” his father says. But now Matt, despite his advanced degrees and deep competence, works as a temp and lives with his father. In what counts as the major development in this drama, he suddenly bursts into tears. Matt won’t explain why he’s so unhappy, but his brothers have their theories. Jake says: “Women and minorities may get to pretend they’re doing enough to make the world a better place just by getting ahead, but a white guy’s pretty hard- pressed to explain why the world needs him to succeed. So Matt’s trying to stay out of the way.” Matt doesn’t agree, but he doesn’t give his own answer — and, to her credit, neither does Young Jean Lee.

 

Straight White Men

At the Public Theater

Written and directed by Young Jean Lee; associate director, Emilyn Kowaleski; sets by David Evans Morris; lighting by Christopher Kuhl; costumes by Enver Chakartash; original music and remixes by Chris Giarmo; sound by Jamie McElhinney; dramaturgy by Mike Farry; movement by Faye Driscoll

Cast: Austin Pendleton (Ed), Pete Simpson (Drew), James Stanley (Matt) and Gary Wilmes (Jake).

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission.
Straight White Men is scheduled to run through December 7.

Update: Straight White Men has been extended through December 14, 2014