“A Doll’s House” inspires Vassar drama audience

Image courtesy of Emma Lawrence.

As a drama major, seeing Broadway shows in New York City with the Drama Ticket Fund has been my ideal pastime this year at Vassar. The idea of watching performances that we study in class, free of charge, allows me to hone my theatrical craft in the way it is meant to be studied: up close and personal. This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of witnessing Amy Herzog’s adaptation of “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen.

As audience members sauntered into their seats 15 minutes prior to showtime, they were greeted by Jessica Chastain, live and in the flesh, rotating on a turntable sitting completely still. Outfitted in all black with her red hair pulled back, Chastain stared straight ahead of her. Almost menacingly, all cast members then slowly joined the stage, but they never acknowledged one another. Each wooden chair faced in a different direction, and the year 1879 was projected onto the back wall. After watching this production, you might not have realized that year was when Ibsen originally wrote the play, as the minimalistic set suggested a more modern time. Or perhaps no time at all—it is all up to the audience’s interpretation. This lack of specific reference to time period, through set design, costume or dialogue, was my favorite part of this production.

In my “Sources of World Drama” class with Professor of Drama Amanda Culp, we studied Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of the play. Telling the story of a housewife slowly descending into dissatisfaction at the hands of her patronizing husband, this play brings to light issues that are still relevant to this day. Nora, the leading lady with a dark secret, is reimagined as Niru, a young Bengali woman married to Tom instead of Torvald, an English colonial bureaucrat. Similar to Ibsen’s original, each husband treats his wife as something to be admired and toyed with, as opposed to an equal. They are kept as playthings for their husbands, yearning for a way to escape the madness that society has placed in their laps. Studying this play in Culp’s class was incredibly interesting for me, and after Sunday’s performance, I knew I needed to pick her brain to hear her thoughts on this new edition.

“I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on the way the production’s minimalist design really allowed Amy Herzog’s terrific new version of Ibsen’s text to shine,” says Culp. “By denying us the trappings of middle class life promised by the play––the intricate design of Nora’s home, the macaroons on which she snacks, the Cuban cigars her husband and Dr. Rank smoke––director Jamie Lloyd has left us with nothing but the language to live in. There is nowhere for the director and actors to hide in this production, on this bare stage. Which means they can’t distract us from the text with stage business or props.” Only the bare bones of the stage are visible. Even when various props are mentioned, the actors have made no attempt to pantomime them, so the audience is fully expected to immerse themselves in the spoken word. In fact, they cannot escape the dialogue—much like Nora cannot escape the confinement of her dollhouse. 

“They have to understand every word meticulously, so that we can see the world around them through their interactions. I think this is why so many of my students responded to the play afterwards with shock and surprise—lines of the text that they didn’t remember from reading the play, that sounded so fresh, so contemporary, that Herzog had to have added them. But she hasn’t. She’s made adjustments, to be sure (the first that really caught my ear was Nora’s confession in Act I that she has a desire to just say f*ck it all. In most translations this sentiment is the more demure ‘to hell with it!’). But I think the biggest change is not the language, but the fact that the language is placed front and center. There is nothing to distract from it. And so, we hear it not as bound to the trappings of a foreign home over a century ago, but for how and where it feels uncomfortably close, uncomfortably contemporary,” explains Culp. Yet, in Herzog’s minor modernization of the dialogue, she creates an interesting character development in Nora that only a live audience can catch. For example, when she conversates with her husband Torvald, her tone is reminiscent of a bird—light and breezy. The couple frequently implement baby talk within their exchanges. Yet, when Nora is truly comfortable with characters Kristine and Dr. Rank, the audience catches a glimpse of her Machiavellian side.

Through cutting, uncomfortable and distinct language used by various characters within the show, Lloyd compares and contrasts agency between stifled women in a patriarchal society. This adaptation of “A Doll’s House” depicts a world where women are disrespected and forced to sacrifice their morals, bodies and self-respect to fit into the mold society deems socially acceptable. Although at first Nora’s disaster appears minute, the sacrifices she made for her husband’s security came with a substantial price. By giving the audience a peek into the two spheres of a His and Hers world, they witness a life in which women suffer at the hands of people closest to them––their husbands.


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