I challenge anybody to have as bad a time at EgoPo's A Doll's House as PhillyMag reporter Victor Fiorillo did.
But to me, and to the audience that surrounded me at the performance, A Doll's House was an intriguing experimentation with the capacity to be at turns surprising, fun, and eerily relevant.
EgoPo's speciality is making classic works of old worlds not only relatable but palpable, to make them breathe and live in our world. The challenge that director Brenna Geffers poses to herself in this production is to show how a 14-year-old girl who watches Desperate Housewives and Twilight could ever be interested in 19th-century, Norwegian, nuptial and fiscal difficulties. In her (mostly) one-woman production for this year's FringeArts Neighborhood Festival, the story of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, in which his famous heroine Nora Helmer is threatened by intolerance, impatience, death, poverty, and her own helplessness in the face of societal norms, is told by a single, 14-year-old actress playing with dolls and dresses.
Actress Mackenzie Maura, alone on the stage throughout the entire show (not counting, of course, her dolls), has created a series of subtly different characterizations. She is variously a teenager in her bedroom playing herself, a teenager playing a 30-year-old married woman, and 30-year-old Nora Helmer in her own home. (And in a way, the fourth character is Nora Helmer playing a teenaged girl; more on that in a moment.) Maura dresses her dolls, she pours them tea, she throws them dismissively across the room, she blinds them with ties and fabric; she dresses herself with coats and dresses and cloaks and speaks in voices. She places the dolls in positions above her head and they loom threateningly over her.
Geffers is not afraid to push at the script, in turns elevating and infantilizing it to pull out the points of contact between adolescence and Ibsen's realism. Each scene is re-imagined from the adolescent perspective, inflating the power relationships and the childishness with which Nora approaches the world.
In the end we find that this is not much of a stretch. Constantly watched, forcibly reft from finances, work, and worldly affairs, Nora and the women around her are boxed into childlike, idealistic behaviors and kept from ever growing up. Nora comes into trouble when she does grow up, and becomes too big for the restrictions that men place around her. So intelligent, capable Nora often finds herself pretending to be childlike in order to please her husband.
Yet Fiorillo is not completely wrong; this isn't EgoPo's most well developed show ever, nor is it director Geffers'. Some scenes fall a bit flat, or are puzzlingly left open for interpretation. There is a sense that the play is being pulled in several directions. "...what sort of world will she grow up to inhabit?" asks the program notes; "What does the world tell her about herself?"
Ibsen said that he had not set out to write a feminist play; he simply transcribed humanity as he saw it. So perhaps this play would have been well served by abandoning the concept of relating this story to the outside world and modern adulthood; the child's optic just doesn't reach that far. What is powerful here are the many startling glimpses into the grim adolescent mind, full of fantasies of power and submission, the translation of Ibsen's work to the imagination of modern, drama-hungry youth.
And anyway, this is a Fringe piece; the point of the Fringe is to try something you would not otherwise have. As audience members, trolling the guide and picking out shows, we cannot expect that every show, even the good ones, will be polished and complete, or even fully realized. The Fringe is full of shows that are raw, with framework exposed. Yet the experimentation and energy make it exciting, and this is bold, experimental work.