At first glance, it looks like a typo. For the next two weekends at the Center Stage Theater, the reliably creative Lit Moon Theatre Company will premiere its production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House.
Most of us know that classic drama — an unflinching look at a troubled marriage that shocked audiences in the 1880s and strongly reverberates with today’s sexual politics — as A Doll’s House. But Rolf Fjelde, who wrote the translation chosen by director John Blondell, removed the possessive. And that casts the play in a startlingly new light.
The traditional title suggests Nora — the wife who ultimately leaves her husband and children, becoming a feminist icon in the process — is the doll in question. Not so, argues Blondell. “All the characters are dolls,” he said. “All are influenced by the normative forces and repressive climate of late-19th century Scandinavia.”
In other words, they’re all playing prescribed roles. The chauvinism of her husband, Torvald, the crude careerism and small-minded morality of the supporting characters all were shaped by the norms of their society. Having been thoroughly programmed, they are no more autonomous than Barbie and Ken — at least until Nora makes the most famous exit in theater history.
“It’s disturbing, like any great tragedy,” Blondell said. “It shakes us. It still feels astonishingly shocking right now. It still stings. It asks all sorts of questions about domestic relationships: Who has the power, and under what circumstances?”
It is, indeed, a play about gender, money, and control, issues that have been front and center in the public consciousness with the rise of the #MeToo movement. The plot concerns the marriage of a middle-class couple whose comfortable lives are threatened when a past scandal comes to light. Nora does not receive the support she expects from her spouse, and this causes her to radically rethink the choices she has made in life, especially her marriage.
Blondell is setting the play at an indeterminate time — not the late 19th century, but not specifically today, either. “We’ve searched for the right tone,” he said. “So much Ibsen is done in a ponderous, heavy way. That can make it dull. We’ve tried to work against that …. Our approach is very serious and respectful to Ibsen’s intentions, but it’s not humorless. It’s a great mystery play. There is a lot to uncover. The story is always bubbling along.”
He and his actors have been literally working on the play, off and on, since last fall. It was originally set to open in January, but the production got postponed due to the fire and subsequent Montecito mudslides.
“As we’ve delved into the text, the actors and I have wondered about the reliability of characters’ perceptions about the past.” he said. “Initial rehearsals — now about a year ago — were dominated by exercises that experimented with this interesting aspect of the play and led to staging solutions that attempt to highlight and underline it …. In our version, the actors are always on the stage, so the audience is able to witness actor/characters’ responses as they flit across their faces. Also, the simple scenic elements — chairs, tables, lamps, a sofa — are frequently shifted to show varying perspectives, angles, or understandings about how something is watched or perceived.”
Needless to say, that’s a visual metaphor. “The play is full of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and ‘as yets’ and the antithetical impulses that are tied to them,” Blondell noted. “We’ve had many debates in the rehearsal room. I suspect audiences will have similar debates when they leave the show.”
Lit Moon Theatre’s A Doll House runs Friday, August 24-Sunday, September 2, at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo). Call (805) 963-0408 or see centerstagetheater.org.