Knock knock who’s there? Nora’s back, A Doll’s House Part 2

Kristi Hansen and Ian Leung, A Doll’s House Part 2. Photo by Jim Guedo.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“And it’s crucial there be a door. A very prominent door to the outside….” playwright stage directions, A Doll’s House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath

It’s the door that Nora Helmer slammed as she walks out on her husband, her children, and her stifling marriage at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s radical 1879 masterwork A Doll’s House: “the door slam heard around the world.” There’s an insistent knock at that door 15 years later in the opening moment of A Doll’s House Part 2. Yup, Nora is back.

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In Hnath’s smart, funny, suspenseful 2017 play, she’s back to face the people she abandoned — and the questions that have been hovering in the air for a century and a half. How did that door slam work out? What’s Nora been doing? The Jim Guedo production that opens Thursday at the Varscona gives us the chance to find out — and in contemporary language. 

The last we heard from Wild Side Productions was the sound of a door closing too, — a scant week into the run of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, shut down abruptly, along with all live theatre, on the night of March 12, 2020. They’re back (for the first time ever at the Varscona), after a couple of slotted returns, including one last spring, foiled by the pandemic. “The best-laid plans got bumped and bumped, for everyone,” sighs Guedo, the head of theatre at MacEwan University. “Licensing firms have been generous about extending the rights,” but that grace period is coming to an end. The moment is now. 

“I love the audacity of it!” Guedo says of Hnath’s hit Broadway debut that reunites him  with Kristi Hansen, the veteran actor he’s directed in seven productions in the last two decades (since a student production of The Recruiting Officer at the U of A). “The audacity to re-visit people’s assumptions about the dark brooding Norwegian … in contemporary language.”

“It’s a displaced play,” says Guedo, who compares it, in that aspect, to Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (a contemporary play about convicts putting on a play in an Australian penal colony in the 1780s). “It (takes) a play in another period to talk about that’s happening now. What’s changed and what hasn’t.” 

And look around, as he points out, it’s not like the patriarchy has gotten the hook and left town. “140 years later, Roe v Wade, the conservatorship of Britney Spears… not much has changed.” Hansen echoes the thought. “The state of marriage, divorce … how different is it, really?” 

Maralyn Ryan and Kristi Hansen, A Doll’s House Part 2, Wild Side Productions. Photo by Jim Guedo.

Playwright Hnath doesn’t just give the floor to Nora (Hansen). The people she walked out on — her husband Torvald (Ian Leung), her now grown-up daughter Emmy (Chariz Faulmino), the family retainer Anne Marie (Maralyn Ryan) — get their say, too, about the consequences of that door slamming.  

And they’re not pushovers. After all, as Hansen points out along with Guedo, they’ve had 15 years distance to summon their arguments about freedom and responsibility. “In a way, the play is about that,” says Guedo. “There is a cost to what happens,” says Hansen. “Nora comes face to face with that. The pain isn’t theoretical.” 

“Everyone gets their point of view and has their side heard” — the husband who didn’t get a chance to work on saving the marriage, the kid abandoned as a baby who grew up and meets her mother for the first time, the servant who takes on the responsibility of child-raising.   

In one of his first interviews, Hnath, who was originally en route to becoming a lawyer, revealed that in one year he read plays by Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard and Tom Stoppard, the Greeks. And that stopped him in his track: he decided to go into theatre instead. “When I read that, I knew he was a playwright for me!” says Guedo. “There’s a bit of Shaw there, too,” he says of discussions of marriage in A Doll’s House Part 2. “Shavian, but with American red meat in it. Which is why it gets messy, funky, and lively.” 

Guedo has had two and a half years to think about the play and its four-sided geometry. As he’s discovered, the playwright started with the Torvald scene. The husband “gets to say everything he wasn’t able to say at the end of A Doll’s House. He didn’t handle it very well at the time; he’s just had the rug pulled out from under him, and he wasn’t at his best. This is his chance to give his side of the story.”

Chariz Faulmino and Kristi Hansen, A Doll’s House Part 2, Wild Side Productions. Photo by Jim Guedo.Wild Sid

Heath sent that draft to Ibsen and feminist scholars, and asked for their responses. “A lot of them were worried it would just turn into ‘he said she said’, Helmer vs. Helmer,” the Scando version of Kramer vs. Kramer.” But the arguments on all sides have heft. “The thing I love about the play is that it’s funny, but it’s also a play of ideas, and it turns on a dime. It’s not just one thing…. Everyone gets an opportunity to talk about the cost, the collateral damage of walking out the door. Without it re-litigating the past, Nora has to take some direct hits.” 

A Doll’s House Part 2 (one of the most produced plays in North America in 2018) is “a play that needs to be seen!” of his m.o. in choosing Wild Side projects. “And actors want to work on stuff that’s hard!” 

The arguments play out in an intricate text, that on paper, is full of ellipses, slashes, silences that mean different things, overlapping dialogue, punctuation marks that are clues. “Very precise, very fun to dig into,” says Hansen, who directed the Fringe production of Ellie Heath’s highly theatrical memoir Fake n’ Bake this summer. “It’s got to feel spontaneous but it’s been marked and tracked within an inch of its life,” says Guedo. 

After leaving the co-artistic directorship of Azimuth Theatre she shared it with Vanessa Sabourin in January 2021, Hansen has been digging into freelance work — as an actor and  as a researcher. “You get to say Yes way more!” One of her pandemic gigs has been as a technician/researcher at Moment Discovery, a tech-art collective that explores the digital tracking of human movement in light and sound. “We use technology to make art,” she says, to simplify for the layman (me). Her short film Are You Inspired? was commissioned by Catalyst Theatre as part of the  National Arts Centre’s Transformation Project. 

This season and next she’s the Associate Artist at the Citadel, in charge of the RBC Horizon Emerging Artist program, focussed on “incrementally opening doors and creating mentorship opportunities for under-represented folk,” as she puts it. “It’s all about “connecting (talented) people.” The Maggie Tree, the indie collective she co-founded with Sabourin, brings a production of The Wolves to the Citadel’s Highwire series in October.   

Guedo reports that he’s spent much of the pandemic shutdown time “completely rewriting” the Joni Mitchell musical he created with her blessing in 2007, in honour of the Saskatchewan centennial (it was revived at the National Arts Centre in 2011). Not only the zeitgeist but Mitchell’s own health narrative, which has taken her back to the Newport Folk Festival recently, have dramatically changed.

Meanwhile, a play that’s been on his mind for years will finally hit the stage in Edmonton. A Doll’s House Part 2 “is not just a debate…. if they’re trial lawyers they’re also the defendants. Nora isn’t coming back for a reckoning, or a rehash. This is not a Nordic noir Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.” 

“In rehearsal it’s badminton or ping pong. But it’s going to feel like champions playing tennis.” 

PREVIEW

A Doll’s House Part 2

Theatre: Wild Side Productions

Written by: Lucas Hnath

Directed and designed by: Jim Guedo

Starring: Kristi Hansen, Ian Leung, Chariz Faulmino, Maralyn Ryan

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Sept. 18

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com

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