Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Doll's House

The Guthrie is staging Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in an adaptation by Chicago playwright Rebecca Gilman. We went. It’s a mildly engaging play to watch, scene by scene, but the characters are shallow, they never really develop, and in the end the pieces don’t add up to much.

The one thing everyone remembers about Ibsen’s play is that the heroine, Nora, leaves her husband—a shocking event to many audience-goers when the play was first produced in 1879. That event has become almost a commonplace, of course, yet unfortunately Gilman has failed to find any contemporary turn of events to generate the same effect. In fact, through most of the play the heroine, Nora, is portrayed as so ditzy and irresponsible that when she does decide to leave her husband, it seems like yet one more irrational lurch of a personality that’s been out of control for decades. The references to Enron, Star Trek, Flashdance, Target, and Madonna elicit chuckles from the crowd, but the overall impression I got from watching the play is that Gilman thinks people nowadays are far more superficial than they were in Ibsen’s time.

Considered in another light, the play could be taken as yet one more example of the errant notion (which has been a core tenet of “high art” for decades) that there’s something aesthetically interesting in exposing the rampant materialism of “modern culture.”

We do hear echoes here and there of the moral dilemmas that interested Ibsen. For example, Nora borrows money to pay for her husband’s rehab (a good act) but doesn’t tell her husband of its shady origins, nor of the extra ten grand she tacked on to feed her mania for interior decorating (a bad act). But the characters lack the nuance and gravity to bring these complexities home and in the end they remain dramaturgical props rather than compelling realities on stage.

All the same, it can be fun to go to the Guthrie, especially in the midst of the blinding thunderstorms that passed through the city last night. We had the pleasure of picnicking with friends before the performance in an open-air gazebo on Boom Island. (The sandwiches from Be’wiched Deli were outstanding.)

The lingering effects of the storm made themselves felt this morning, when Hilary went down to switch the laundry and found the basement floor covered with water. After she’d gone to work I got the Wetvac out, moving cardboard boxes aside, shifting old picture frames here and there, disposing of manuscripts that I turned into books years ago. Such expeditions into the heart of the basement are also expeditions into the past, of course, and there was an element of nostalgia bordering on sadness as I contemplated various hobbies that have long since gone by the wayside. Here the bright lights for the Super-8 movie camera, there the plastic containers of fabric dye for the quilts Hilary used to make. Under the stairs sits the carboy I used for making my one and only batch of red wine decades ago. And look! A box of plastic margarita glasses in the shape of saguaro cactuses. A journal of a trip to Greece, the pages now pretty well fused into a single lump. A black-and-white wash drawing of a dilapidated barn that I did as a freshman in college. A backgammon board my brother gave me years ago. A turntable, a very large box of tape cassettes, some 45s from my teen years (including the Beach Boys, the Yardbirds, the Dovells, and Doris Troy!), a squash racquet (wooden), some snowshoes (wooden), a parallelograph (look it up), and a stove-top waffle iron. And that’s to say nothing about the paint cans, the potter’s wheel, or all the books.

It’s been an interesting life. Nothing very dramatic about it, but (with all due respect) it seems far richer to me, even soaking wet, than anything I saw on the Guthrie stage last night.

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