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American Doll in Rhinebeck

Theater review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Feb 3rd, 2018

From left: Nanette Ayers, Joesph Bongiorno, Francine Ciccarelli, Jeremy Ratel, Geneva Turner, Andrew Joffe

Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House, produced by the Rhinebeck Theater Society at the Center for Performing Arts, offers an American interpretation that emphasizes sincerity over nineteenth century public morality. While the concept and importance of social morality and reputation has recently diminished, the privileging of logic and sentiment in this production somewhat diminishes the drama of this classic tragedy. (A classic has the status of a play that welcomes multiple viewing over the years.) While there is some excellent acting here, direction by Dorothy Longo is in places either weak or misconceived.  

Bernard Shaw, who saw the play in 1889, thought Ibsen was a greater playwright than Shakespeare, but since Shaw did not know Norwegian, this remains blatant prejudice for strict realism in theater, rather than the mercurial extravagance of Shakespeare’s versatility. Ibsen was the first to transport French realism and interior monologue (both developed in the novel) to the stage; the first to explore narcissism as a cancer in marriage; the first to expose women as the mere servants of men; the first to indict debt as a social disease; the first to investigate sudden fissure of trial separation in marriage; the first to set tragedy amid the Christmas Holiday Season; the first since Shakespeare to present a tightly wound ticking clock.

Francine Ciccarelli as Nora appears more logical than whimsical in the first act, does not quite manage to conjure hedonistic hypocrisy on the verge of madness in the second, yet rises to deliver a credible last act that has perhaps more deliberative logic than fiery passion. Joseph Bongiorno, as husband Torvald, delivers successful complacency in the first act, convincing narcissism in the second act, yet lacks the self-righteous, oblivious anger that would highlight the independence of Ciccarelli’s fine acting in the third act.

The marvel of this production remains the three supporting actors: Geneva Turner as friend Kristine exudes a genuine authenticity that displays depth of character integrity; Jeremy Ratel, as the villain Krogstad, is so menacingly electric in voice and body language that the audience wishes he had more lines and more scenes; Andrew Joffe as the dying Dr. Rank provides the most humane and most delightful Dr. Rank I have seen on the stage; his descent into momentary stoic hedonism furnishes memorable comic relief. Nanette Ayers as the children's nanny offers calm cheer. The general excellence of actors in the subplot threatens to overshadow the main plot.    

Watching a live play is always better than a film version of a play. (There were two 1973 competing film versions of A Doll’s House, each of which contains virtues that still make them worth viewing: one, directed by Joseph Losey with method-actress Jane Fonda; the other, starring Claire Bloom, directed by Patrick Garland.) Ibsen’s themes of middle-class individuality and the battle of the sexes still deliver a timeless, archetypal dance.

The set by Andy Weintraub is simply magnificent. The well-staged irony of the Lutheran Christmas tree emphasizes Ibsen’s incipient iconoclasm and the confrontation of tradition with modern ambiguity. Although there are some flaws in this production, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is such an indelible masterpiece that it is worth seeing multiple times over a lifetime, and it may be a minor moral crime to miss an opportunity to see the play if you can.

The play runs, snow or rain, at the Center for Performing Arts on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through February 18th. You can purchase tickets online at http://www.centerforperformingarts.org or call the box office at (845) 876-3080.