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Theatre for a New Audience performs Ibsen and Strindberg in repertory.

by Photo of Paul Hansen

‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘The Father’ are being presented in rotation.

Theatre for a New Audience performs Ibsen and Strindberg in repertory.

The Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Theatre for a New Audience is presenting two plays by northern European literary masters. The esteemed company is performing Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and August Strindberg's The Father in rotating repertory. Both plays address the role and the relative power of women in a marital relationship.   

In addition to addressing similar themes, The Father was apparently written as a direct response to Ibsen's play.  There was a well known rivalry between the two writers. At one point in The Father, there is a specific mention of Ibsen's Ghosts.  The rather unusual reference to Strindberg's literary competitor drew a hearty laugh from the audience at the performance which I attended. 

Set at Christmas time, A Doll's House centers on married couple Nora and Thorwald Helmer and Nora's attempt to suppress a document in which she illegally forged her father's signature to obtain a loan. The loan was used for her husband to recuperate from an illness in Italy.

Nora's disappointment in Thorwald's selfish reaction to the crisis causes Nora to reexamine her marriage and she becomes aware of the artificiality of her existence. She realizes that she has in essence been a “doll” which has been passed from her father to her husband. To find her own identity she feels impelled to leave her husband's house.

In The Father, another couple (Laura and her husband aptly referred to as “Captain”) argue over the future of their daughter. The father wants the daughter to move to the city to study to become a teacher while Laura is insistent that the daughter stay at home and become an artist. The father asserts his absolute patriarchal authority to control the destiny of the child and in response Laura plants the seed in his mind that the daughter might not actually be his. The obsession and doubt as to the daughter's patrimony sends the Captain into an disintegrative emotional tailspin.

The two dramas share the common theme of a woman dissatisfied with her role in a marriage.  Nora realizes that her husband basically views her as an appendage to his career and life. Laura is appalled at the lack of equivalency in her relationship with her spouse. Interestingly, the couple at the center of both plays are performed by the same actors - Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson.

Ms. Lacey's performance of Nora has a definite dramatic arc. She appears first as something of a flighty middle class house wife, transforms into a deeply worried woman, and finally communicates a calm epiphany as she takes stock of her life and realizes the new direction that it must take. John Douglas Thompson delivers an acting tour de force in The Father as a man whose world has been turned upside down by a challenge to his authority and the troubling insinuations about his daughter's parentage.

The exceptionally fine supporting cast in both works is played by the same group of actors including Nigel Gore, Jesse J. Perez, and Laurie Kennedy, all of whom give very textured, naturalistic performances. The scene in which Margaret (played by Kennedy) cunningly and soothingly tricks the Captain into a straightjacket is particularly memorable.

Riccardo Hernandez designed sets for both A Doll's House and The Father. The sets provide the sense of a comfortable Victorian middle class household and Hernandez creatively uses the stage space at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.  Both productions are also finely directed by Arin Arbus

I particularly admired the lighting design in A Doll's House by Marcus Doshi. There are a number of candles on stage, and the overhead stage lighting is lowered and configured to make it appear as if the whole set is lit just by the candles. It is apparent towards the end of the show that the lighting itself is a thematic motif. When Nora decides to leave, the door to the house is bathed in a solid, almost celestial white light, as if the light points her in the direction of some form of deliverance, or at least a new journey.

Volumes have been written and I am sure will continue to be written about the sociological significance of these plays and the revolutionary if not incendiary impact they had when first produced. (A Doll's House was first performed in 1879 and The Father in 1887.) I will not add to that discussion here but merely state that those interested in serious, powerful theatre should make a definite effort to see these two fine productions.

A Doll's House and The Father are playing in rotating repertory through June 12 at The Polonsky Shakespeare Center located at 262 Ashland Place. The inviting facility with a gleaming glass facade is only a few feet away from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.



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