Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Nora"


Nora
Ingmar Bergman

 

The Cast of Nora
When Ibsen premiered A Doll’s House in 1879, controversy immediately erupted when his banker’s wife and mother of three challenges the society’s definition of marriage and walks defiantly away from hers, seeking to discover who she really is beyond those two, domestic titles.  At the time, Ibsen said he was inspired by the prevailing belief that “a woman cannot be herself in modern society” because [society is] “an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint” (italics added). 

It is that final part of Ibsen’s statement that makes Shotgun Players’ current production of Nora – Ingmar Bergman’s 1988, pared-down version of Ibsen’s original – so timely, in a very unfortunate way.  After seeing the manner the most prepared candidate ever running for U.S. president (who happened to be a woman) was treated and compared by both press and public as opposed to the way was the least-ever prepared candidate and to-be winner (of course, a man), Ibsen’s statement and reason for writing his play now feels more relevant than ever – a sad commentary 125 years later and after women supposedly won their full rights long ago.  Shotgun Players presents a compelling portrait of a woman who transforms before our eyes, becoming a pillar of confidence and determination – a metamorphosis emanating from a decision bold and justified but a decision all others around her deem inappropriate in every respect, all because she is a woman.  And while we watch wanting to see the play as an interesting museum piece, we slowly realize that the play actually mirrors attitudes still too dominant in our current world.

Kevin Kemp & Jessma Evans
Nora is a woman who holds a secret she describes as “the source of my pride and joy.”  She is slowly, meticulously paying back a sizable loan she covertly made three years prior to save the life of her husband -- Torvald, now a banking manager – in order to send him to a warmer client to recover from a debilitating condition.  To obtain the loan as a woman, she forged her dying father’s name – an act of love now threatening her seemingly perfect life.  Nils Krogstad, the source of her surreptitious loan, is now about to be fired by her husband and promises to reveal her crime of forgery to all the world (especially her straight-and-narrow, patriarchal husband) unless she can convince her husband to reverse the planned action.  But in a world where a wife’s place is in a “play room” as her husband’s “doll thing,” influencing her husband to reverse an act he has already made public leads him to only one conclusion. “I would lose face,” he says appalled at the thought of doing what she want – an outcome worse than death in his world of total machismo.

The magnetic pull is overwhelming to keep our eyes locked on Jessma Evans as she portrays Nora and ignore all else.  With high, full cheeks that call attention to mischievous dimples and sparkling eyes, her beginning persona can be totally believed as she declares, “It is truly wonderful to be alive.”  How proud she is to tell her shocked and skeptical childhood friend, Kristine Linde, about the secret loan and the things she has done since to make money to pay it off.  “So fun ... making money ... almost like being a man,” she reveals with confident accomplishment broadcasting from her being in every way Ms. Evans can possibly muster. 

Jessma Evans
But as the threats of her loan shark come to fruition and reactions mount against her, her light-hearted Nora transforms to someone almost not recognizable, yet increasingly more real and admirable.  There is a transition period as she is slowly taking in the changes occurring around her when her countenance becomes frozen -- eyes not moving and mouth slightly open, not speaking.  As the realization becomes evidently clear to her that she is no longer who she once was and now must take the step to see who she now is, dramatic shifts in her persona occur.  It is as if a different actress has stepped into the role of Nora, so dramatic are those alterations of voice, stance, and manner.  In a performance to be long remembered, Jessma Evans becomes every woman -- every person -- who has suddenly had that epiphanic moment of a life-changing decision that feels so sure, even when there is no supportive confirmation offered from anyone around her. 

Surrounding Nora in this journey she did not wish upon herself are people whose relationships with her and each other are defined by a tangled web of ill-conceived and/or ill-received decisions made under male-dominated, societal norms.  Childhood friend and now-widow, Kristine Linde, suddenly reappears with secrets and an air of mystery that Erin Mei-Ling Stuart emulates through her dark, hovering presence countered by an air of genuine concern (but not approval) she bestows on Nora’s revelation about the loan and the resulting blackmail.  With a set jaw and eyes that have clearly endured suffering, Kristine is a woman strong in nature and resolve in her own right but who still operates within the boundaries of societal dictates – boundaries she hopes to pull Nora back safely within.

Michael J. Asberry is Dr. Rank, a wealthy and close family friend of Torvald and Nora.  Now near death, the congenial, gracious, and dignified Doctor with a voice deep, smooth, and soothing is ready to reveal some secrets of his own before passing out of Nora’s life – revelations whose reception shows even Nora still carries her own deep-set, societal do’s and don’ts just as she is about to reject those that are entrapping her.

Bearing down on Nora face-to-face in his demands and threats, Adam Elder’s Nils Krogstad is absolutely demonic in a desperate, yet still pitiful manner as he seeks reinstatement into his job at the bank.  The stalking, weasel part of Nils is however not the whole of who this man is.  Mr. Elder is masterful in gradually revealing a much more nuanced, complex man – one who has made his own tough choices for another’s well-being and one who has had his own share of disappointments.

On the one hand, all-adoring of Nora but on the other, all-controlling of her and suffocating any attempts she makes toward independent, self-expression, Torvald is dripping in his handsome charm while also over-flowing in ego-and-male-centric attitudes.  The result is that he continually boxes his wife into an ever-collapsing definition of who she is allowed to be (well illustrated in Maya Linke’s set design and a stage that becomes ever smaller with an approaching and thus threatening back wall).  A role written with much, rich potential in its attract/avoid range of possibilities, Kevin Kemp is unfortunately too one dimensional in his approach to Torvald, over relying on a constantly loud, cymbal-like, and almost stomping approach in delivering his lines (and then too often stumbling in their delivery, at least on the night I happened to see him). 

Director Beth Wilmurt and her creative team warn us in a number of clues that there are winds of change, probably not good ones, coming into Nora’s life.  In a heavy, black cloak of mourning (costumes by Maggie Whitaker), Kristine is the first person we see and one who lingers long on the sidelines with foreboding side glances before entering Nora’s house.  A low, uneasy, and moaning set of notes is heard somewhere in the distant and barely discernable background as part of Matt Stines overall outstanding sound design.  Already mentioned is the wall papered with women’s silhouetted heads (as if paper dolls) that moves ever slowly as Nora’s chances of happiness in this same house become ever fewer.  Even the seemingly awkward manners that set pieces are moved in and out of the one door in the wall are done in ways that seem to illustrate how difficult it is to shift anything anchored firmly in this society’s landscape.

Pared down from Ibsen’s three acts to one long act (one hour, forty-five minutes), Shotgun Players’ version of Ingmar Bergman’s Nora moves in a well-paced, no-exit manner toward a decision that today still feels unnatural and unsettling yet at the same time, justified and triumphant.  The real unease upon leaving is how long will it take until a generation watching this nineteenth-century story will see it as a piece of long-ago history and not still a part of current reality.

Rating: 4 E

Nora continues through April 23, 2017 at at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Pak Han

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