A few weeks ago, a friend and I went to the Violet Crown to see Stage Russia's simulcast of Uncle Vanya from a theater in Moscow. Still riding high off Oasis Theatre Company's nice production in Santa Fe in the fall, I was excited.
What we got, however, was a strange version that I can only describe as if David Lynch (of Fire Walk With Me and Blue Velvet fame) directed Chekhov, complete with interpretive dance, spooky lighting and odd character choices. My companion and I were perplexed, but transfixed; we didn't necessarily like it, but we couldn't turn away. It was technically profound, but totally absurd and not to my taste. At least we had booze.
It made me wonder if the Santa Fe theater scene that I crow about so much really is up to snuff. Do you have to have your brow furrowed and never hope to understand a thing in order for it to be groundbreaking? Do you have to be unsure if you even like something in order to love it?
Save for Theater Grottesco's few-and-far-between activities, we don't really have a company in town right now doing really weird shit. Nothing has freaked me out in a David Lynch kind of way. (What I'm saying, by the way, is that someone should start doing really weird shit.)
All this was swirling in my brain when I went to the season opener for New Mexico Actors Lab, that Old Faithful of Santa Fe, ever dependable for presenting hearty modern works in an accessible manner.
This remains true in NMAL's opener for its 2019 season. Artistic Director Robert Benedetti chose the topical A Doll's House, Part 2, contemporary playwright Lucas Hnath's sequel to the 1879 play A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen. First produced in 2017, it received eight Tony nominations that year, and won one.
The original play concerned the marriage between Nora and Torvald, which fell apart due to dishonesty concerning money, jobs and love. Nora walked out on Torvald and their two children at the end, saying she needed to take care of herself before she had a duty to anyone else (a radical idea indeed for 1879).
This one sees her walking back in after 15 years. But it's not to reconcile—oh no. She wants only to settle some legal matters. She's quite happy, she says, having become a well-paid writer (lol) and living a gleeful life as a modern single woman.
The strongest first impression in this production comes from Kat Sawyer as Anne Marie, the maid and nanny who meets Leslie Dillen's Nora when she first walks back in the door—and man, is she funny. One of the most natural personalities I've seen onstage recently, Sawyer appears effortless, with the driest of deliveries and whip-fast comebacks, all while maintaining a likeable and sometimes almost clueless affect. She was my highlight of the show.
Torvald, played here by NMAL regular Nicholas Ballas, is almost everything I imagined he should be. Tall, dapper, handsome, and with a clear, rich voice, Ballas was cast well. But I found that his face was not expressive enough for the range of emotions the character needed. I haven't noticed this of Ballas in other performances, but his mouth felt particularly stiff, his whole aura restrained. Not sure if that was a gesture toward a gentleman of the time, or whether something's off, but I missed bigger faces and larger feels from Torvald.
Torvald and Nora's come-to-Jesus moment is effective and appropriately heavy. Nora leads, and I want to cheer her on as she crows about her newfound sexual freedom, how it's okay for folks to have more than one spouse in life or none at all (and, more wild, that the institution of marriage should be done away with entirely), and other wild-then and somehow-still-wild-now feminist beliefs. It sounds great. I like her envisioned future.
But then Torvald gets to talk. Not overbearing, not angry, not snide, he tells Nora: "You run off and you pretend it's the same thing as being strong!"
Oof. That hit like a sucker-punch.
From there on, the play acquired another dimension entirely, turning the characters prismatic. And then with the addition of Emmy (Alix Hudson), the daughter that Nora abandoned as a young child, another layer emerges.
Do you have to indulge every last feeling that you think will be a good one? Is caring for children every mother's sole purpose? What if the feminist left her family in order to fight for a better future for them that will be more impactful on them than her physical presence would have been? What are we obligated to do for family? Uncomfortable questions stared down unblinkingly, even if left unanswered.
The other layers that pile up, eventually almost humorously, concern just how much each of these characters want and need from each other. And I'm not talking emotional support or loving kindness; I mean legal matters. Paperwork. Contracts. I can't go into detail without spoilers, but it becomes laugh-out-loud despicable after a while. Eventually I decided that yeah, no, I don't think I actually like any of these people. But I was glad to come to that conclusion; consistent performances that lead to evolution of our opinions are the best ones.
Indeed, perhaps Nora's nicest moment is one in which she is alone onstage. Dillen is onstage for the entire duration of the play (90 minutes with no intermission), and when she's finally left alone waiting to meet Emmy, we see Nora waver for the first time. She takes a shaking breath. Her face crumples in her hands.
It was the moment at which I most liked Nora. Not coincidentally, it was the only moment at which any of these characters were not asking for something from someone else, or meddling dishonestly in someone else's affairs for some kind of personal gain. It was one brief respite; a rare moment of truth.
And as golden sunset light streamed in the door at the end of the play, I felt a strange peace; not a happy one, per se, but a satisfied one, not clogged by bells or whistles or interpretive dance.
As ever, from a show from NMAL.