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THEATER REVIEW The Doll's House Project: Ibsen Is Dead

by Mary Shen Barnidge

Playwright: Calamity West. At; Interrobang Theatre Project at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-935-6875; Article Link Here ; $20. Runs through: June 8

What everybody recalls about A Doll's House is that Nora Helmer walks out on her husband and the restrictive society he represents. A few might also recall the domestic events precipitating this crisis. Hardly anyone recalls the outraged criticism that greeted its premiere in 1879. Although the controversy failed to prevent Ibsen's runaway housewife inspiring over a century of discontented matrons to follow her example, a playwright nowadays who proposes to question the resolute Mrs. Helmer's options risks a similar fate.

The Helmer residence this time is a starkly fashionable Manhattan apartment, where its mistress returns from Christmas shopping on Nov. 9, 1989, to enjoy a forbidden cigarette and ignore the telephone while her hubby is away working. Almost immediately, she is interrupted by Christine, a friend from the distant past now in need of money after her government-connected paramour dumps her. Then the young doctor who lives upstairs ( and appears to share a curiously intimate relationship with his married neighbor ) comes calling. When Torvald comes home, he finds his cloistered home invaded by strangers—and his cloistered spouse exposed to outside influences.

For those who may not recognize the significance of the date, the Helmers' hospitality includes almost continuous TV news coverage of the Berlin Wall's collapse, commentary on which provides occasional respite from the characters' contradictory revelations and strategic queries into one another's finances. What draws Nora's attention, however, is the irony of East Berliners now traveling unimpeded across the former barriers, while visas are still required for West Berliners seeking to re-enter the Communist sector. Once you choose freedom, in other words, there's no turning back.

So do the impoverished Christine and doctor represent the values Nora abandoned for the security of a comfortable life where nothing is asked of her but obedience? Are these outside agitators merely phantoms in a scenario occurring solely within Nora's own mind? Does the final scene reaffirm her capitulation to economic necessity, or is what we have seen a rumination essayed in preparation for subsequent action?

Calamity West—an author rapidly forging a reputation for restitching classics into whole new cloth, rather like making a quilt—challenges us ( in a good way ), as do director James Yost and his slyly enigmatic cast, to re-examine Ibsen's heroine in the context of our own cultural mandates. Whatever your conclusions, you're unlikely to ever see Ibsen's original ( which you might want to re-read ) in quite the same way again.

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