It would be too easy to dismiss “Nora (A Doll’s House), a trendy modernization of Ibsen’s seminal 1879 drama, as hopelessly wrong-headed. For all the sound and fury of its iconoclastic production — which finds Nora literally tossed around like a rubber sex toy until she slams the door on her gilded cage with an act of violence — this German import never makes its case that the European hausfrau of today is as enslaved to bourgeois convention as her 19th century sisters. Still, the boldness of Schaubuhne artistic director Thomas Ostermeier’s smash-and-burn concept and the fierceness of Anne Tismer’s attack on the leading role make for invigorating theater.
This is a production that grows on you — if you can survive the initial onslaught of the f/x staging, blood-sport performance style and rock-concert decibel level. Transferred to the present, the drama unfolds in the home of a man who has it all and keeps it all on show. In Jan Pappelbaum’s sleek contempo set design — frosted-glass doors, split-level living spaces stocked with all the latest techno gizmos and a coffin-size aquarium in the middle of the living room — this postmodern doll’s house could model for the Bauhaus issue of Architectural Digest.
But for all the modernity of the staging, the show’s textual revisions are surprisingly superficial. Despite such innovations as giving the predatory Dr. Rank a case of AIDS and substituting a feverish S&M number for Nora’s naughty tarantella, few significant changes have been made to Ibsen’s storyline. Much of the dialogue (including the dated endearments Nora’s pompous husband uses to keep his “little songbird” happy in her cage) survives intact.
Banker Torvald Helmer (Jorg Hartmann) is still a petty tyrant who dotes on his trophy wife as the ultimate status symbol of his success in business and his worth as a man. Nora (Tismer) still accepts her decorative role and panics when the ruined Krogstad (Kay Bartholomaus Schulze) blackmails her for a past indiscretion that could destroy her pampered life. Despite the efforts of influential friend Dr. Rank (Lars Eidinger) and faithful confidante Mrs. Linde (Jenny Schily), Nora is driven to desperation by the crushing financial and social restrictions that make it impossible for her to resolve her dilemma.
Helmer Ostermeier has been most adventurous in devising a fresh performance idiom for these characters to express their feelings and conflicts. With jangling selections of pop music to juice them up, the German thesps go ballistic in ear-splitting style. Nora and her showpiece children show their exuberant high spirits after a Christmas shopping spree by dashing around the house in a frenzied nursery game. Crazy Krogstad vents his despair by howling and shrieking, and hurling himself at Nora. Torvald’s Japanese goldfish are frequently startled by people jumping headfirst into that giant aquarium.
Tismer is outstanding at this acrobatic acting. Lithe and lovely even in the skin-baring, blood-drenched Lara Croft getup she wears to the costume party (a vast improvement over the modest folk dress Ibsen had in mind), this self-possessed thesp brings a dancer’s grace to the physical indignities forced on Nora by the male maulers who lust after her.
She brings the same supple quality to her more muted expressions of Nora’s inner life, giving us a moving account of the character’s dawning realization of her shrinking options. The fluid motion in which she sinks to the ground after her final act of violence is extraordinarily eloquent.
But for all Tismer’s efforts, Nora’s ultimate act is no more convincing than her earlier efforts to extricate herself from her living hell of a marriage. Not because she lacks resolve, but because she’s denied the options appropriate to a modern woman living in modern times. Would she have screwed them up? Possibly. Probably. But this production gives her no chance, because it makes no attempt to replace the 19th-century socioeconomic forces that imprisoned the original Nora with the kind of pressures that keep contemporary women in their place.
Annie Lennox theme music notwithstanding, this Nora is still back in the dark ages.