The Connecticut-based Bated Breath Theater is mounting its first-ever production in New York, and just like the company itself, the results are embryonic. Directing her own translation of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” a.d. Helene Kvale delivers interesting ideas that desperately need to grow.
Like Dutch director Ivo van Hove in his 2004 New York Theater Workshop production of “Hedda Gabler” — or like almost every German director — Kvale turns Ibsen’s subtext into text. Confined to a belittling marriage, Nora Halmer (Heddy Lahmann) wanders a lifeless stage, designed by Mike Billings to be little more than tan panels and transparent scrims.
The latter results in shadow play: As Nora reveals that she illegally borrowed money to pay for the medical expenses of her husband Torvald (Luke Daniels), or as he coos that she’s useless without him, other cast member skulk behind the scrims. Backlighting turns them into distorted silhouettes, suggesting the social pressures that constantly oppress the Halmers and keep them locked in their gender roles.
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That’s a valid, if not terribly original, read on the play, and the threat of outside forces feels palpable when Krogstad (Peter Mutino), Nora’s moneylender, threatens to expose her.
Contributions from movement director Greg Webster also have potential. As Nora’s comforting world starts to collapse, Lahmann moves less realistically: She emphasizes lines by hanging from metal handles on the walls or by thrusting her hands through the fourth wall, as though reaching for the audience. It’s compelling that, as she gets closer to her famous decision to leave her family, Nora becomes more mechanical — as if her social role were fighting to keep her in place.
But Webster pulls his punches. If odd movements are going to become a physical language, they need to occur consistently. Since Nora only goes mechanical a few times, her gestures play like lackadaisical embellishments.
Billings, who also designs lights and sound, is equally half-hearted. He places a miniature dollhouse upstage, for instance, but it just sits there, reduced to a shallow symbol of domestic strife. Conversely, Kvale takes her choices too far. Silhouettes are unsettling once, but when they keep appearing, they become parody.
The actors skate the surface of their roles. Daniels reduces Torvald to a smarmy bastard, and Mutino chews on his lines until Krogstad is a cartoon villain, ready to tie Nora to the train tracks.
But this Nora might not care. Even in her most impassioned scenes, Lahmann is blank. It’s hard to believe this bloodless woman could even pick a fight, let alone survive without her family to protect her.