A Dull House

A Doll's House

Guthrie Theater

A Presidential Town Hall Debate

The Democratic and Republican National Committees

          ONE OF THE things I like best about the Guthrie's production of A Doll's House--the first staging of the play in the theater's history--is the preponderance of green on the stage: The walls, the floor, the stage's box frame, the tiles. Everything green. It's a deep and slightly electric shade; one might call it post-forest. It's a sure improvement from the pastel confetti-tower of this season's opener, The Cherry Orchard, and decidedly more stylish than the hazy, burnished glow of Philadelphia, Here I Come! Set designer Neil Peter Jampolis compares the green sea to "a kind of male womb," a phrase I like very much; but what ultimately clinched the set's merit in a really personal way was the discovery that, viewed with the proper squint of the eye, this huge concavity of green almost looks like an oversized television.

          Playwrighting, I sometimes think, is like playing both sides of the chessboard. In A Doll's House, Ibsen constructs an ever-more-foolproof trap for young bride Nora, then offers illusory opportunities for escape. Some people must go for this squirm-and-exhale routine, whose leading modern champion has been Arthur Miller. I feel manipulated. The same goes for the famous proto-feminist conclusion--Nora leaves home--which has always seemed a little giggly; maybe it's because I imagine a dour Norseman manipulating sock puppets made up as Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. Not to mention that the play's premise--a debt is a dangerous thing--has lost some of its potency in these days of plastic. (As for the cast--Anne of Green Gables's Megan Follows as Nora, the estimable Stephen Pelinski as boobish husband Torvald, Richard Iglewski as Dr. Rank, Sally Wingert as Nora's confidant, Mrs. Linde--they are all still mired on that mythic isle off the coast of England where North American MFA actors learn to sound ambiguously effete. Give me Norwegian or give me nothing.)

          Over the course of this Guthrie season, which I have often enjoyed, there appears to be a concerted campaign to squeeze theatricality out of the theater. Here, under the direction of former Guthrie artistic director Michael Langham, this dream has been boldly realized. In his notes, Langham recounts the style of the only Ibsen play performed under his tenure,
An Enemy of the People. "It was directed in what I guess you could call
the 'Deconstructionist Approach,'" he writes with winning modesty. "At least you could say of that production that it didn't fall into the cliché 'Ibsen-trap' of being heavy, grey, humorless, and remorselessly Nordic." But now, the grinning vacuousness of the deconstruction days are long gone, and perhaps that is a good thing. From the plain projected intertitles to the smaller-than-life emotional palette, this Doll's House does have a sleepy charm to it. And I saw real tears all across the aisles--tissue-dabbed and free-falling--as the Scandinavian Barbie abandons Ken in the confining walls of Ibsen's Malibu ranch.

          The Guthrie's new aesthetic is one of finely-wrought naturalism. And when finely-wrought naturalism isn't available, there's always facile sincerity. If one squints hard enough (an act distinct from nodding off, which my date did), one can almost detect the thrust stage receding in a kind of atrophy. Only a video camera and a flugelhorn rondo stand between this Doll's House and Masterpiece Theater.

          Just as Ibsen frames wretched Torvald to play the patsy, in A Presidential Town Hall Debate, the Democratic and Republican parties have scripted actor Robert Dole as the mordant undertaker to William Clinton's confidence man. Watching Dole--the grim establishment costume, the sun lamp-leathered skin--one feels a certain interior twitch that might be sympathy, might be nausea. One does appreciate the nuanced characterization of the debate's unnamed authors, but the actors slip so clumsily between hackneyed script and witless improvisation--well, maybe they're only acting at acting. Take Dole's syntax, the divorce of subject from verb, wandering ever farther apart, like Dole and his abandoned first wife. "If I were a senior citizen...," Dole begins a joke about Medicare policy. Cymbal! Rim shot! Snare!

          Hoarse, intimate, mercurial, and handsome in a post-Elvis kind of way, Clinton seems to be sleepwalking through the endearingly insincere performance he staged with great enthusiasm in his original 1992 appearance. He walks a tightrope: On the left side, the restoration of Judeo-Christian charity, on the right, fascism with feeling. Like all classic theater, the plot changes little over the years. Here, two cash-greased weasels jump into a pit, and the slicker one emerges for the curtain call. CP

          A Doll's House runs through November 9 at the Guthrie Theater; call 377-2224. The Presidential Town Hall Debate returns to the Charleston Shriner's Temple Auditorium on October 14, 2000.

 
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