I started June off with an interesting event. Did you know that “Strindberg wrote The Father as a direct rebuttal to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House,” as Theatre for a New Audience’s publicity has it? I didn’t—though I knew both plays. According to TFANA, in his play, Strindberg is “fulminating against Ibsen’s tale of a woman bravely escaping a stifling bourgeois marriage.” When I read that in TFANA’s season brochure, I considered the two plays and thought, ‘Yeah, I can see that. It even makes sense.’ The Father had always seemed just a sadistic, misogynistic joke before—sort of a Gaslight with the roles reversed—but here was a plausible rationale for Strindberg’s having written it.
Theatre for a New Audience was going to present Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and August Strindberg’s The Father, two vastly different examinations of the collapse of a marriage, in rotating rep with the same director, designers, and acting company at their new home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in May and June. (I saw TFANA’s Pericles there earlier this season, so there’s a profile of the company and its theater in that report, posted on 1 April 2016.) It seems that neither A Doll’s House nor The Father has had a major indigenous staging in New York since 1997 and don’t appear to have ever been presented in English together before. So when the non-subscriber seats went on sale, I booked the two shows back to back on consecutive nights.
Diana, my usual theater companion, and I saw Doll’s House first since it’s the older play and the one that inspired the Strindberg. TFANA’s production was based on the 1937 adaptation writer Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) made at the request of Jed Harris (1900-79), legendary producer and director, for a star-studded staging he was putting together for Ruth Gordon (1896-1985), both of whom were friends of Wilder’s. With Harris as director and Gordon as Nora, the rest of the principals were soon cast for the Broadway mounting (which was also expected to transfer to London’s West End after its New York run): Dennis King (1897-1971; Rose-Marie, The Vagabond King, The Three Musketeers, and as Gaylord Ravenal in the 1932 revival of Show Boat, all on Broadway) would play Thorwald; Paul Lukas (1891-1971; The Lady Vanishes, Grumpy, Rockabye; Oscar in 1944 for his role in Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, which he also did in the 1941 Broadway première), Doctor Rank; and Sam Jaffe (1891-1984; Yiddish theater; The God of Vengeance, The Jazz Singer, Grand Hotel), Krogstad.
The production did a three-week out-of-town try-out at the Sixth Annual Play Festival in Central City, Colorado, in July and August 1937, which was so well received that Harris planned a 10-week tour in the fall, starting in Toronto in October and ending in Chicago for two weeks in December. On 27 December, Wilder’s Doll’s House opened at the Morosco Theatre in New York; it moved to the larger Broadhurst Theatre in January, where it closed on 30 April 1938 after 144 performances, a record for A Doll’s House on Broadway that stood for the next 59 years (Janet McTeer’s 1997 revival closed after 150 regular performances and 8 previews). The Harris production went on to Philadelphia for two weeks, but it closed there and never made the leap across the Atlantic.
Though there have been a dozen Broadway revivals (and countless regional and college productions) of A Doll’s House since the play’s 1889 début in New York, plus one Off-Broadway staging in 1963, except for three radio broadcasts (one in October 1937 and two, after the play closed, in 1938 and 1941), Wilder’s adaptation of A Doll’s House, based on German translations of the play (Wilder read and spoke German, as well as French, Spanish, and Italian), was never produced again until TFANA undertook it. It wasn’t even copyrighted until 1969 and hadn’t been published until TFANA planned its revival when the Theatre Communications Group put out its edition this year.
(There hadn’t been English-language productions of A Doll’s House in New York City that originated here since 1997, but there have been variations on New York stages in recent years. There was, for example, a 2012 Off-Broadway production of Ingmar Bergman’s adaption entitled Nora, translated into English and adapted by Frederick J. and Lise-Lone Marker, directed by Austin Pendleton with Jean Lichty as Nora and Todd Gearhart as Torvald, presented by La Femme Theater Productions. In 2004, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival hosted an up-dated production in German of Nora, the traditional title for A Doll’s House in Germany, translated by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel and directed by Thomas Ostermeier of the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin, with Anne Tismer as Nora and Jörg Hartmann as Torvald. Again at BAM, the Young Vic company of London presented a 2014 production of A Doll’s House directed by Carrie Cracknell from a translation by Simon Stephens with Hattie Morahan as Nora and Dominic Rowan as Torvald.)
The two plays in TFANA’s Scandinavian repertory were both directed by Arin Arbus, Associate Artistic Director at the company who’s helmed many of the company’s productions over the years (King Lear in 2014; Much Ado About Nothing, 2013; Othello with John Douglas Thompson, 2009), with the same design team and (except for the two children in Doll’s House), the same cast. A Doll’s House, which ran two hours and ten minutes with one 15-minute intermission (Wilder’s script is written in three acts as was the practice in the ’30s, but Arbus presented the play as two acts), began previews on the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage, the 299-seat, variable-space black box house at the Polonsky, on 10 May and opened on 24 May; the production was scheduled to close at the matinee performance on Sunday, 12 June. Diana and I saw the evening performance on Wednesday, 1 June.
Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906) was born in the small port town of Skien, Norway (about 80 miles southwest of Oslo—called Christiania until 1877 and Kristiania until 1925). He was a descendant on both his father’s and his mother’s sides of prominent members of Skien’s political and business elite; his own son, Sigurd, became Prime Minister of Norway (1903–1905). Ibsen became a major playwright, poet, and theater director, one of the most distinguished dramatists in European theater, credited with introducing stage Realism to Western theater. Though some of his later plays (A Doll’s House, Ghosts) were controversial in their time, his works, which include verse dramas such as Catiline (1850), Peer Gynt (1867), Brand (1866), and others, alongside his renowned prose plays, are the most produced theater pieces in the world after Shakespeare, with A Doll’s House ahead of all other plays since the beginning of the 20th century. Ibsen influenced other writers like playwrights George Bernard Shaw (who was a strong advocate for Ibsen’s plays and his ideas—both literary and social), Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov, Eugene O'Neill, and Arthur Miller, and novelist James Joyce. Though he was never a Nobel laureate, he was nominated for the prize three times.
Though Ibsen went into self-imposed exile from Norway, living in Italy and Germany from 1864 until his return in 1891, his most productive years, he set most of his plays in Norway, often (as with Doll’s House) in towns much like Skien. In July 1876, Ibsen was invited to Berlin to see a production of his Pretenders by the Meininger, a troupe under the direction of Duke George II renowned for applying realistic staging techniques to their productions. He was subsequently invited to return with the company to Saxe-Meiningen, their home duchy, where he observed the troupe at work. The plays the Meininger produced, however, like The Pretenders (1863), weren’t written in realistic style, but Ibsen was inspired to write for this new theater. His first realistic prose play was Pillars of Society, completed in 1877, which was a moderate success. His next effort, though, was A Doll’s House (Et Dukkehjem in Danish, the language in which Ibsen wrote his plays, sometimes translated as A Doll House, most notably by Rolf Fjelde, Ibsen’s chief American translator) in 1879, an immediate sensation across Europe—some of the reactions violent: there were riots outside theaters where Doll’s House was performed. The notion of a wife and mother leaving her family was simply anathema to middle-class society in Norway and the rest of Europe.
Based on the life of a friend of Ibsen’s who experienced much of what happens to the main characters in Doll’s House, the playwright shaped the events into the successful drama we know:
Nora Helmer (Maggie Lacey) believes she’s happily married to Thorwald (John Douglas Thompson), a lawyer who’s about to become manager of the bank where he works. They have two small children (Ruben Almash, Jayla Lavender Nicholas), who are in the care of Nora’s old nanny, Anna (Laurie Kennedy). As the play opens, Nora’s returning from doing some Christmas shopping and, with the help of a porter (Christian J. Mallen), brings home a small Christmas tree. She’s greeted by her husband who good-naturedly scolds her for her extravagance, talking to her as if she were a silly child—which is precisely how she behaves with him. Thorwald, considers his wife careless and childlike, and often calls her his “little girl,” his “dear child,” or other infantilizations. The maid, Ellen (Kimber Monroe), announces that a lady has called on Nora and that Doctor Rank (Nigel Gore), the Helmers’ “best friend,” has gone into Thorwald’s study to wait for him.
Thorwald goes to join the doctor as Christina Linden (Linda Powell), an old friend of Nora’s, arrives. Christina, a widow now, has come back to town to look for work, and Nora promises to ask Thorwald to give her a post at the bank. Then Nora proceeds to tell her friend a secret she’s been keeping from Thorwald. Soon after they were married, Thorwald became “terribly ill” and the doctors told him “to give up everything and go south.” Nora had to obtain money in secrecy for a trip to Italy and so she borrowed it from Nils Krogstad (Jesse J. Perez), a lawyer who had been a fellow student of Thorwald’s and now works at Thorwald’s bank. Because a woman can’t borrow money on her own, Nora went to her father; but he was dying, so she forged his signature on the loan papers. Ever since, she’s been paying the loan back with money she’s saved from her housekeeping allowance and what she’s earned from small jobs.
Krogstad arrives to speak with the man who will be his new “chief,” and Christina recognizes him as someone she used to know. After Thorwald, Rank, and Christina all leave together, Krogstad returns for a word with Nora. He’d seen Christina leave with Thorwald and asks about her. Nora tells him Christina’s going to get a job at the bank, and Krogstad explains that that means he’ll be dismissed because it’s his job that Christina’ll be getting. In desperation, Krogstad threatens to tell Thorwald about Nora’s loan and the forgery unless she persuades her husband to let him keep his post. When Nora tries to influence her husband, however, he dismisses her as if she were a simple child who can’t possibly understand the ways of business. Thorwald insists on firing Krogstad, who was involved in an earlier forgery incident himself, and Krogstad makes good on his threat by delivering a letter to Thorwald detailing the whole story.
As the letter lies in the Helmer mailbox, Nora becomes desperate. At the same time, she’s convinced that out of his love for her, Thorwald will take the full responsibility for what she’s done, though Nora says she wouldn’t accept her husband’s sacrifice; she just wants to see him offer to ride to the rescue like a knight. That’s the “miracle” she hopes for. Doctor Rank comes to pay a call and tells Nora that he’s dying, the consequence of too much high living at his father’s table when he was young. Nora considers asking him for help and advice, but when Rank declares his love for her, she can’t ask him for the favor. Christina, however, who was in love with Krogstad when they were young, gets him to change his mind and withdraw his threats, but Thorwald has opened the letter and learned the truth. He reacts with anger and fear; far from taking the blame on himself, as Nora hoped, Thorwald sees only the harm her actions will cause him and his “honor”—it’s all about him in the end. He even shouts at her, “And the children . . . to think that they’ve been in your care all this time! I can’t trust them to you.” When another letter arrives from Krogstad telling Nora and Thorwald that he won’t pursue his revenge, Thorwald does a complete reversal, expressing relief and delight that he’s out from under Krogstad’s thumb. Nora, though, now understands that her marriage isn’t what she thought it was, and that it’s all been a sham. She explains, “I’ve been your doll-wife, just as I used to be Papa’s doll-child.” She decides that her action must be to leave her husband and children in the door-slam heard ’round the world.
(I must add a note here about a common belief, then thought to be based in science, to which Ibsen subscribed. He grounded parts of the plots of Ghosts and The Master Builder, as well as A Doll’s House, on the concept, which has two elements. First, moral corruption can have physical manifestations so that someone who lives an immoral life can suffer physical illness as a consequence. Thus, Doctor Rank’s youthful dissolution has resulted in his disease of the spine. Second, such a diseased person can pass the evil on to her or his children. “It’s like a poison,” says Thorwald of Krogstad’s infection, “especially for the children.” Later Thorwald elucidates, “It’s really amazing to see how criminal tendencies in children can be traced to lying parents.” Nora’s father, according to her husband, “had no notion of what principles are . . . no religion, no morality, no sense of duty.” Once she hears this, Nora begins to shun her own children for fear of contaminating them; just before she leaves Thorwald’s home, she stops herself from seeing her children one last time, saying, “No, I won’t go in to the children. I know they’re in better hands than mine.” It’s why she leaves not only Thorwald for his self-centeredness, but must abandon her children for their wellbeing as well.)
TFANA’s variable-space theater had been set up with a runway stage with walls and entrances both up and down stage and the audience seated on the right and left of the platform. The single set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, was the white-walled front parlor of the Helmers’ apartment, furnished in late Victorian style. (The color palette for Doll’s House was much sunnier and brighter than for The Father.) To allow for the action of the play, the furniture was all along the right and left sides of the stage and the pieces were all low silhouette to permit spectators to see through and over them. Actors who sat in the chairs on stage left or the sofa on stage right didn’t stay there very long so as not to block the audience’s view or to keep their backs to half the house for any length of time. Director Arbus, however, managed to keep this somewhat unnatural configuration from seeming awkward and kept everyone moving so that the physical progress of the play flowed credibly. (I remarked in my report on Allegría Quiara Hudes’s Daphne’s Dive, posted on 29 May, that directing for this “butterfly” stage configuration isn’t easy.) Though trying to imagine the layout of this apartment was tricky—I suppose it must have been the 19th-century Norwegian equivalent of a railroad flat—Hernandez’s layout worked fine and looked marvelous, right up to the open frame of a coffered ceiling. The stage was lit appropriately by Marcus Doshi for the gaslight era in a northern latitude in late December (it’s Christmastime).
Susan Hilferty’s costumes set the right tone for a reputable middle-class family in a provincial city; those with lesser means or disreputable characters were suitably identified by their attire. And I need to take special note of the work of co-sound designers Daniel Kluger and Lee Kinney who almost made an additional character out of the unseen entrance door to the Helmer apartment. Every entry was preceded by doorbells and opening and closing doors and other sounds from the off-stage vestibule, making it clear that prospective arrivals were more than just a simple visit, they were either a messenger of joy or a harbinger of misfortune. The noises from the foyer were always discernable—no one came without being announced with a fanfare—and we soon learned that it was either someone with good news and pleasure or bad news and trouble, one or the other.
The acting was generally fine, with a few shortcomings. I found Wilder’s adaptation a tad brittle and awkward here and there, as if he were trying too hard to make it sound “colloquial” (for the 1930s, of course) “to give the play a twentieth-century feeling.” It isn’t actually anachronistic, but it seemed to steer the actors into odd line readings now and then because, I think, the language is neither period formal nor exactly contemporary conversational. (My recollection is that the language in James Costigan’s adaptation used by George Schaefer for the live 1959 NBC-TV broadcast, which starred Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer, and which I last watched over 25 years ago, was far more natural.) By far the least effective performance in Arbus’s Doll’s House, however, was Thompson as Thorwald Helmer, who was stiff and seemingly uncomfortable throughout. As Nora, Lacey played too much into the child-woman image, which I think was a mistake both from the actor’s and the director’s perspective, but Lacey played it believably, if not wisely. Thompson’s Thorwald came off not just stiff-necked but pompous, even when he was supposed to be playful or tipsy. It made me wonder why it’s taken Nora so long to be sick of him.
Lacey’s over-indulgence in the baby-doll behavior made her about-face at the end seem artificial and contrived. Part of the fault may lie with Wilder’s adaptation, but I think Arbus and Lacey needed to show more of Nora’s backbone, her hidden adult that led her to take command of the situation when her husband was deathly ill and her father was dying. The rest of the cast had less trouble with their roles, which are a good deal more straightforward, to be sure, and acquitted themselves well. I found Powell’s Christina convincingly strong and stalwart as Nora’s friend and a woman left to her own devices to get by, and Perez’s Krogstad, who could have come off as a mustache-twirling villain from 19th-century melodrama, was just truly desperate enough to make his sliminess explicable. Unfortunately, the unevenness of the production as a whole made the work of these actors stand out more than it should have.
On the next night, Thursday, 2 June, Diana and I again drove over to the Polonsky Shakespeare Center to see August Strindberg’s The Father (1887) in a new English version by David Greig, a Scottish playwright and stage director. (Greig, 47, was born in Edinburgh and has seen his work presented at many of the major theaters in Scotland, as well as London and across the U.K., including the Royal Shakespeare Company. He’s currently the artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, where he lives. Having previously adapted Strindberg’s Creditors in 2008 for the Donmar Warehouse in London, Greig has translated The Father on commission by TFANA, which is staging its world première.) The TFANA production, which was presented as a long one-act (though Strindberg’s original is divided into three acts) running one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission, began previews on 1 May and opened on 25 May; its closing performance was scheduled to be the evening show on 12 June.
Johan August Strindberg (1849-1912), known as a playwright, novelist, poet, essayist, and painter in his native country (but principally as a dramatist abroad), was born in Stockholm, Sweden. In The Son of a Servant (published in Swedish between 1886 and 1909 and in English in 1913), an autobiographical novel (Strindberg’s mother was a barmaid), Strindberg characterized his childhood as fraught with “emotional insecurity, poverty, religious fanaticism and neglect.” By all accounts, the nascent playwright’s youth, including his school experience, was harsh and unhappy, leaving a lasting impression that troubled him throughout his life. He became a difficult and hypersensitive youth and adult, characteristics that were exacerbated by the early death of his mother, with whom he was not especially close, when he was 13—and his father’s precipitous remarriage to the children’s governess. He drew heavily on his personal experience for his writing and over a span of 40 years, composed more than 60 plays and over 30 other works (not counting his 10,000 letters). Though most of his best-known plays are realistic or naturalistic (The Father, 1887; Miss Julie. 1888; and Creditors, 1889), Strindberg was an inveterate experimenter and innovator, working with surrealistic and expressionistic effects (A Dream Play, 1902; The Ghost Sonata, 1908).
Strindberg’s famous misogyny, much in evidence in The Father, developed after the failure of the first of his three marriages—before that he was actually a supporter of women’s rights (or what he later labeled gynolatry), though he came to call feminists “Ibsenites.” His portrayals of “the battle of the sexes,” which arguably culminated with The Dance of Death (1901), was the burning core of most of his writing, both dramatic and novelistic, for the period of his naturalistic work. The Father was Strindberg’s direct attack on what he saw as the cult of feminism that was promoted in Ibsen’s Doll’s House. Though Strindberg vilified Ibsen publicly and vituperously, the older playwright admired his Swedish rival and respected his writing.
Strindberg’s The Father (not to be confused with an unrelated play of the same title by Florian Zeller, currently at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway until 19 June, starring Frank Langella—who, coincidentally played the Captain in the last Broadway outing of Strindberg’s play) has been on Broadway seven times since its 1912 New York début. These included a 1962 visit by the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden and the 1996 Roundabout Theatre Company revival adapted by playwright Richard Nelson and directed by Clifford Williams with Langella and Gail Strickland. In 1973, Roundabout mounted an Off-Broadway production of The Father in its then-home in Chelsea, adapted and directed by Roundabout artistic director Gene Feist and starring Robert Lansing and Elizabeth Owens.
In the study of Captain Adolf (Thompson), a cavalry officer at a rural army outpost, the Captain and his brother-in-law, the pastor (Perez), are discussing a young soldier in the Captain’s troop who has apparently—and not for the first time—gotten a young woman pregnant but hasn’t taken responsibility for the situation. The pastor wants the trooper’s commander to give him a talking-to and get him to own up, and the soldier, Nordstrom (Greig has changed some names from Strindberg’s original text), is called in. The trooper won’t accept absolute responsibility because, he says, he can’t be certain that he’s the baby’s father. A woman always knows she’s a child’s mother, but a man can never be sure, Nordstrom (Mallen) asserts in a fateful statement that will have disastrous repercussions. When Nordstrom leaves, the Captain tells his brother-in-law that he and his wife, Laura (Lacey), disagree about their daughter Bertha’s (Monroe) education. In a household of women, all of them have vociferous notions about the young girl’s future: while the Captain wants Bertha to move into town and study to be a teacher so she can support herself on her own, Laura wants her to stay at home and become an artist; his mother-in-law (Powell) wants the girl to become a Spiritualist, the child’s governess wants her to become a Methodist, the nurse, Margaret (Kennedy), wants her to be a Baptist, and the maids want her to join the Salvation Army. The pastor warns the Captain that his sister has always insisted on getting her own way and uses any means to do so. Indeed, she may not even care about the thing she seems to have wanted—as long as she wins.
When the pastor leaves and Laura enters the study, the Captain tells her that his decision about Bertha’s future will be final, and that the law supports him, because, he points out, the woman relinquishes her rights when she gets married. The argument becomes heated until Laura suggests that the Captain may, in fact, not have any authority in the decision because he can’t prove he’s Bertha’s father, throwing Nordstrom’s argument in her husband’s face. The Captain departs and the new town doctor pays a call. Laura persuades Doctor Ostermark (Gore) that the Captain may be insane, because, as an amateur scientist, he thinks he’s discovered life on another planet by looking through a microscope. The Captain later explains that in fact he’s discovered signs of organic life by studying meteorites through a spectroscope (an analytical device used in astronomical studies) and we witness the way Laura manipulates facts and events to her benefit. Laura also reveals to the doctor that she has obtained a letter that the Captain once wrote confessing that he himself feared he might go mad (a fear that the playwright actually shared). The Captain becomes frustrated and responds with violence—he throws a lit kerosene lamp in the direction of his wife as she exits, smashing it against the wall and starting a fire in the wood-paneled room. It turns out that Laura’s deliberately provoked her husband into committing this irrational act so she can have a reason to have him committed.
Doctor Ostermark has ordered a straitjacket for the now-raving Captain, and the pastor exclaims to Laura how strong she is—and without leaving any incriminating evidence behind. The Captain capitulates to Laura as the stronger person and breaks down entirely. When the straightjacket arrives, it is Margaret, who was the Captain’s former nurse, who cradles him and soothes him as she cajoles him into the restraint. As the captain suffers a stroke and dies, Bertha runs to her mother, who claims the girl as her own child.
Greig made a few small alterations in the text in addition to the change in some names and he’s compressed Strindberg’s original three acts so it can be performed as a long one-act, but his language in The Father isn’t as alien to the ear as Wilder’s almost-80-year-old adaptation is (this despite the fact that Wilder was American and Greig’s a Scot). He was, perhaps, facilitated here by Strindberg’s innate bombast—The Father’s a more emotionally explosive play than Ibsen’s well-made middle-class drama. Besides, there’s an inherent artificiality to Strindberg’s situation anyway, so perhaps a heightened language style fits more convincingly—or less jarringly—here than in A Doll’s House. In any case, it wasn’t the issue I found it to be the previous evening.
The same can be said of both the central performances. (More than in A Doll’s House, Strindberg’s husband and wife are the focal figures in The Father while the other characters are much more peripheral than their counterparts in Doll’s House are.) Lacey’s Laura was much more on target—of course, the character’s far more single-minded than Nora is—than the actress was in the other play. She identified her goal and went right after it like a hawk homing in on its prey. And nothing shook her along the way, either. Lacey wasn’t only in command of her role, but her Laura was in command of the situation. Thompson’s Captain was more credible both as the military commander and as the gaslighted husband, even as he descends further and further into doubt, despair, and madness. From his bio, I see that Thompson has most often played strong men of action (Othello, Brutus Jones, Antony, Tamburlaine) like the Captain was before his wife got to his confidence, less often the petit bourgeois types like the provincial banker Thorwald Helmer, and this predilection showed at TFANA.
As I asserted above, the people orbiting the Captain and Laura are less integral to the events of The Father than the featured characters in A Doll’s House; they’re more bystanders and enablers. Nonetheless, the actors handled them nicely, especially Kennedy as the old nurse, Margaret. Kennedy portrayed a caring but concerned caregiver who steps up when her former charge, now a man driven to distraction, needs a gentle hand—even though she has no idea what’s really happened to him. It was Kennedy’s nurse who cradled the doomed man as he dies. Also well-played were Perez’s pastor, quite a different fellow from his Nils Krogstad in Doll’s House (which is half the fun of doing and seeing plays in rep like this) and Monroe’s teenaged Bertha, the daughter much torn between her two parents.
Arbus kept Lacey and Thompson constantly aimed directly at one another—the supposed object of their disagreement, Bertha, virtually became extraneous—like a pair of loaded and cocked dueling pistols. At the same time, the director didn’t let the satellite characters fade off into the ether or skimp on their characterizations. Doctor Rank, for instance, may have more to do with what transpires in A Doll’s House than Doctor Ostermark does in The Father, but Arbus assured that Gore gave us at least a glimpse of who the man is, as much as Strindberg allows.
The scenic work of Hernandez and Doshi for the Strindberg was equally as effective as it was for the Ibsen. (The wood-paneled study was oriented the same way as the Helmers’ parlor, on the up-and-downstage runway with the butterfly audience.) The room was more masculine, with a rack of guns behind the Captain’s desk and a row of hunting trophies mounted on the wall above, the better to show how Laura boldly invades her husband’s domain. Once again, Hilferty’s costumes, from the Captain’s military attire to Laura’s somewhat severe gowns and jackets, set the milieu visually. The color palette for The Father was dark, mostly browns and greens (with the exception, of course, of the blue military uniforms); there was minimal color in this world. Though, like Doll’s House, The Father takes place at Christmastime, there was little to betray the celebratory spirit of the season. The Kluger-Kinney soundscape for the Strindberg included storms and thunder, as if the heavens were at war, too.
In its survey of 17 reviews, Show-Score gave A Doll’s House an average score of 86 and The Father, 88, with 100% positive reviews for both productions. The Epoch Times was among the highest-rated notices, and Judd Hollander declared of TFANA’s Scandinavian repertory: “Offering up very different commentaries in regards to the age-old battle of the sexes, both productions of ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘The Father’ are very well done indeed.” Arbus’s staging “of both plays works well here,” reported Hollander, “especially in terms of building the tension of who will be found ultimately in the wrong,” and Hernandez’s scenic design “is essential in showing a happy and comfortable home for the Helmers and a much more somber and stark place for the Strindberg piece.” The Epochal reviewer found that “Thompson gives two standout performances here, playing Thorwald as self-absorbed and unsympathetic, but never truly evil. His performance as the Captain is a particular tour de force, taking him from an outwardly stern and commanding person to one tormented.” As the two wives, “Lacey plays to perfection what is essentially both sides of the same woman. In one case, she uses her wits to help her husband even at the risk of going to jail herself and learns to respect the person she has become.”
In the New York Times, Ben Brantley asserted, “A noise of primal desperation emanates from each of the two suspenseful dramas that have been resonantly paired” at Theatre for a New Audience in Arbus’s “engrossing productions.” The Timesman noted, “What really awakens the senses here is the feeling of suffocation that pervades two domestic battlefields, an impression of doom woven into the fabric of a social order,” and added that, seen singly, “each production makes this achingly clear,” then explained that viewing the plays “in tandem is to experience two of modern theater’s most influential minds locked in fierce dialogue.” Praising Arbus, whose “first objectives are clarity and accessibility,” for her “refreshingly levelheaded” direction, Brantley found that her productions of the two plays “maintain a . . . low hysteria quotient (or as low as Strindberg allows), without sacrificing the plays’ anxious and compelling momentum.” The Times review-writer was especially impressed with Thompson’s “power in conveying raw torment” in The Father, where his performance “is, in a word, brilliant.” An actor “whose presence always reads large,” Brantley felt that Thompson “is hardly a natural choice for the small-minded Thorwald. But for that very reason, the character’s egotism has seldom seemed so daunting.” Lacey’s “ostensible ordinariness,” asserted Brantley, “makes her easy to identify with.” The reviewer felt, though, that the actress “is more at ease as Nora, whom she endows with an innate shrewdness, but her calm, matter-of-fact portrayal of Laura keeps us from seeing the character as a castrating witch.”
In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the reviewer called the twinning of the two Scandinavian classics “inspired” but felt that Arbus’s “productions tend toward stuffiness— . . . illustrating the classic plays more than reinterpreting them.” Nevertheless, the New Yorker reviewer found that “together they provide a theatrical time machine, taking us back to an era when our minds were as cosseted as a bodice-wrapped body.” Sandy MacDonald of Time Out New York labeled the Wilder version of A Doll’s House a ”loose translation” that “achieves a more accessible, universal resonance,” while Greig “manages to winkle out humor and insight” in his adaptation of The Father. Lacey’s Nora “has the makings of a modern woman,” MacDonald found, “a smart cookie who has a plan in place.” Thompson’s “inevitable eruption” as Thorwald “does not disappoint” and as the Captain, he “brilliantly straddles the line of is-he-or-isn’t-he (crazy).”
The top ratings from Show-Score (three 95’s) were from the cyber press and one of those was TheaterScene.com, on which Deirdre Donovan reminded us that Ibsen’s Doll’s House “became an instant hit” in Stockholm 136 years ago and asked, “So does Arbus’ new outing of the war horse measure up?” Her assessment? “You betcha.” (In contrast to TONY’s Sandy MacDonald, Donovan thinks Wilder’s translation is “taut.”) In fact, the review-writer deemed Arbus’s Scandinavian repertory “a double slam-dunk.” Asserting that the “strong” acting ensemble “delivers the goods,” Donovan declared that Thompson “really displays his virtuosity” as Thorwald, but “balances his performance with displays of hubris early on and then the desolation of a man suffering a severe mental breakdown” as Strindberg’s Captain. Lacey displays “the necessary range” as Nora, “gradually evolving from the doll-like wife to the determined woman” and then portrays “Laura with all the ruthlessness of Lady Macbeth.” The cyber reviewer also had praise for Powell’s Christina, Gore’s Doctors Rank and Ostermark, Kennedy’s Margaret, and Monroe’s Bertha. Hernandez’s “narrow set” for A Doll’s House “conveys the boxed-in atmosphere of the Helmer home” and his “Spartan set” for The Father “hits the mark with its plain furniture and hunting accoutrements.” Doshi’s “lighting ensures that we catch each beat of” Doll’s House and “is downright eerie” in The Father. Hilferty’s “period costumes” for the Ibsen “are pure confections” and those for the Strindberg “summon up the military and civilian look of” the time. Donovan concluded that “this theatrical event is a must-see.”
Another high-scorer was the similarly-titled TheaterScene.net, whose Victor Gluck pronounced the pairing of Doll’s House (in Wilder’s “lucid” adaptation) and The Father “a brilliant idea” and found them “as timely today as when they were written.” Calling the revivals “inspired,” Gluck deemed that “these productions are dazzling theater whether seen in tandem or seen separately.” Lacey makes Nora “different in each act” and Laura “cold, calculating and scheming.” Thompson “plays a low-key, suave, kindly but paternalistic” Thorwald in the first part of Doll’s House but “the fireworks begin” in the second part. The actor “gives a titanic performance” as The Father’s Captain. Gluck had complimentary things to say about all the members of the cast, as he did for the design team, especially lauding Hernandez’s “symbolic war zone” of a set for The Father. The third of the highest-rated notices was on NY Theater Guide, and Jacquelyn Claire confessed, “I am still experiencing emotional aftershocks from the ground shifting so suddenly beneath my feet,” characterizing the plays as “two seismic eruptions” that Arbus has directed “with the magnitude of the Furies in full force.” Describing both translations as “exquisite,” Claire thanked Arbus for giving “us two precious gifts.” NYTG’s review-writer felt, “The cast wrestle the charged air with fearless focus,” with special mentions for all the members of the ensemble. At the pinnacle were “the masterful and astounding performances” of Lacey and Thompson, who “each craft characters of intense complexity.” Lacey’s Laura “is ruthless, self-possessed, conniving, and brutally honest” and her Nora “is diverting, sensual, frenetic, and transformative.” Thompson “is a peacock” as Thorwald and his “tantrum is like a fire truck siren on a New York street—piercing, alarming, dangerous, and loud!” Seeing his Captain is “to witness this unbelievable journey into the depths of a broken man.” Hernandez’s set is “powerful . . ., a no man’s land between warring factions” and Hilferty’s costumes “gracefully give us the time, the status, and the rigid roles of our protagonists.”
On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer characterized TFANA’s Scandinavian rep as “insightfully directed . . . [w]ith a terrific repertory ensemble” which resulted in “a wonderfully immersive experience” when she saw both plays in one day. “It’s fascinating to see Lacey’s Nora turn from fluttery ‘doll wife’ to determinedly independent woman,” wrote Sommer, “and emerge as the always determined to have her way Laura in The Father.” Thompson’s “Thorwald is . . . relatively understated until near the end,” then “in The Father . . . he gives full reign to the high octane dramatic chops that have earned him a reputation” as one of our best classical actors. Featured actors Perez and Gore received praise for their dual roles in the repertory. Hernandez’s set design allows “A Doll's House to reflect a cozier, happy home. The Father’s set is less homey”; Sommer added, “Bravo is also in order for the costumes [of Susan Hilferty], lighting [by Marcus Doshi] and sound design work [of Daniel Kluger and Lee Kinney].” In the end, the CU reviewer acknowledged, “I can’t remember a more touching finale than this one” in Theatre for a New Audience’s Doll’s House and, though she admitted that she’s “always found The Father something of a yawn, hopelessly dated and excessively melodramatic,” she found that TFANA’s offering “didn’t have a boring moment, full of unforgettable moments.” JK Clarke reported on Theater Pizzazz that TFANA’s Scandinavian rep productions “transcend the heaviness often associated with these plays. They feel more accessible and tailored to a wider audience than ever” due to “the capable direction of Arin Arbus.” The two lead performances, Clarke declared, were “outstanding”: Lacey was “dynamic” in Doll’s House, “more intense, resolute and scheming” in The Father; Thompson, “remarkably adept” as Thorwald Helmer, “confident, smart and authoritative” as the Captain. Both performances, she felt, were “heart-rending.” Clarke also gave special praise to Hilferty’s costumes and the “sumptuous sets” of Hernandez.
In Show-Score’s lowest-rated notice (70), Theatre’s Leiter Side’s Samuel Leiter labeled the notion of playing A Doll’s House opposite The Father “ambitious” and “commendable” but found that “not much new is to be gained from this particular rendition” at Theatre for a New Audience. While the featured performances were “acceptable,” though “no one demonstrates the kind of chameleon-like transformation one looks for in repertory,” Leiter found defects with both the leads in the two plays. “Melodrama . . . infects the performance of Thompson,” he wrote, especially when his Thorwald becomes angry in the second half of A Doll’s House and his behavior “is a touch overblown.” As the Captain in The Father, Thompson gave “one of those grand, old-time performances” that swung “wildly” from “childish trembling to Vesuvian bursts of furious anger.” This was “technically awesome,” but gave Leiter the impression more “of a gifted actor’s physical and vocal prowess than of truthful human despair.” Lacey “works hard at capturing Nora’s chipmunk-like simplicity” in A Doll’s House,” observed Leiter, however “she always seems to be acting.” In The Father, Leiter felt, “You understand all of Lacey’s choices as Laura and know precisely what she’s thinking,” but like her performance as Nora, “she’s unable to transcend the sense of an actress at work.”
On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart dubbed Arbus’s Scandinavian rep “excellent”—and “uncomfortably timely.” In A Doll’s House, said Stewart, Lacey “endows Nora with innately comedic qualities. She’s flighty and cartoonish”; as Laura in The Father, she’s “calculating in her malice.” As Doll’s House’s Thorwald, Thompson “seems blissfully unaware of the negative effects of his paternalism,” noted the TM reviewer; the character’s “epic meltdown in the final scene is one for the ages.” His Captain “comes across like an innocuous nut job.” Stewart also found virtues in the performances of Gore and Kennedy as well as the design efforts of Hernandez, Doshi, and Hilferty. Tami Shaloum stated enthusiastically, “Theatre For A New Audience has reaped the sweet fruits of their labors with two outstanding productions directed by Arin Arbus,” on Stage Buddy, and the “power dynamics of marriage have never tasted so bitter.” Shaloum continued, “A strong cast carries both plays,” and made special mention of the performances of Gore and Perez. Our Stage Buddy singled out “the effervescent Maggie Lacey,” who “plays the youthful, charming Nora” and Thompson, who’s “marvelous” as Thorwald and “at his most stunning” as the Captain.
[I’ve decided to post my 2004 pre-ROT report on the German production of A Doll’s House (entitled Nora) I saw at BAM for, if nothing else, the curiosity value. ROTters should look for the archival report on that up-dated adaptation on 18 June.]