The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen,
whose realistic dramas moved away from the romanticism popular
in the 19th century, is often called the father of modern theater.
Now that we are firmly entrenched in post-modern theater, his
plays seem a lot less startling than they did in the late 1800s.
Thomas Ostermeier, one of four artistic directors of Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, is hoping to re-create some of that controversy at BAM Harvey Theater this month with "Nora," a 21st-century take on Ibsen’s masterpiece, "A Doll’s House."
"We commissioned a new translation [by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel], which is accurate to the original but modern in tone," Ostermeier told GO Brooklyn via e-mail. "We set the play in present-day Berlin because we wanted to explore the lives of women today and how [their lives] differ from the lives of women over 100 years ago.
"We looked around and saw many women fall back into specific, seemingly old-fashioned gender roles. That’s how the idea to do ’Nora’ came about: out of the question as to what has changed or what hasn’t changed."
As Ibsen wrote "A Doll’s House" more than a century ago, the play is about Nora Helmer, a dutiful wife who commits forgery to save her husband, Torvald, from bankruptcy. When Torvald, who believes a woman’s talents should be limited to child rearing and homemaking, finds out, he is furious. Nora, realizing she will never be able to fulfill her potential as a human being in the doll’s house Torvald has created for her, abandons both husband and children to seek her fortune in the wide world beyond.
In Schaubühne theater’s new version, Nora (portrayed by Anne Tismer, who was voted Best Actress of 2003 in a critics’ survey conducted by the German magazine "Theater Heute [Today]") lives in a luxurious, high-tech apartment filled with ultra-modern art.
"Many people have responded to the modern setting [designed by Jan Pappelbaum] coupled with the original text and said that it enables you to draw interesting parallels to the past, and, in a sense, the past is always a shadow lurking behind the modern setting," Ostermeier observes.
Torvald is still a bank manager, but he is obsessed with modern devices, forever toying with computers and cell phones. The maid is now an au pair. And Ostermeier’s solution to Nora’s plight differs considerably from the original ending. Without revealing too much, let’s say that it involves a startling slow-motion shootout complete with strobe lights.
"The idea originated when we looked at the original play," Ostermeier explains. "The original audience was so shocked that Nora left her husband that in Oslo they put signs up over the doors saying, ’Do not discuss ’A Doll’s House’ here.’ The original ending, of course, doesn’t have the same effect on a modern audience, partly because everyone knows the play, and partly because a woman leaving her husband is probably not so shocking anymore. So we looked for something that would provoke an equally violent debate as the original end, and the end of our production is always the point where people get into violent discussions, so on that level it’s worked."
Other highlights of this production include Nora’s frenzied dance and the use of loud rap and rock music.
With Henrik Ibsen and his audiences long since dead, it’s up to contemporary audiences to cast their votes on this production, which marks Ostermeier’s American directorial debut. Doubtless there will be those who believe Ostermeier and his company have taken unwarranted liberties with the play. Others may be equally convinced that he has liberated the play by spotlighting issues such as greed, violence and gender roles that plague our society today.
Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz’s production of "Nora (A Doll’s House)" runs Nov. 9-13 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20, $35 and $50. The play is performed in German with English surtitles. BAM Harvey Theater is located at 651 Fulton St. between Ashland and Rockwell places in Fort Greene. A BAMdialogue with director Thomas Ostermeier will take place in the BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place) on Nov. 11 at 6 pm. Tickets are $8. For tickets and more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.