KPBS AIRDATE: September 7, 1994
There is an astonishing but somewhat understandable need for theater people to massage the classics. It just isn’t enough that a play has lasted a century or two or three. It must be refreshed, refurbished, made relevant.
Sometimes, these efforts are successful. A fresh perspective can cast new light on an old chestnut. A time-tested work can resonate with a modern audience. But sometimes, the original should be left undisturbed, true to its form and context. The ostensibly respectful renovation can be closer to destruction than to deconstruction.
Instances of both are displayed on San Diego stages right now.
First, the unsavory example. Undergraund! Inc., another avant-garde offshoot of the UCSD Theater Department, is presenting “A Doll’s House,” the nineteenth century classic by Henrik Ibsen. Director Ivan Talijancic, currently enrolled in the Columbia University MFA program in directing, came back briefly to stage what he’d done at school in a five minute version. Maybe his five-minute rendition was less disturbing and off-putting than this 95-minute version. But I doubt it.
Much — maybe too much — has been written about the historic influence of “A Doll’s House” on the course of Western drama. The earliest of Ibsen’s social-problem plays, first produced in 1879, the piece concerned one of the most volatile issues of the day: women’s rights. But Ibsen was neither a feminist nor a social reformer; he merely deplored and exposed injustice.
The story of Nora, a “doll-child” to her father and the “doll-wife” of her husband, who finally learns to become a responsible, self-respecting woman, can stand very nicely as it is, thank you. Her smug, boring bank manager husband represents the male-dominated, authoritarian, condescending social structure. He doesn’t need to become a wife-beater to be relevant today.
The piece doesn’t need intrusive staging and opaque background symbolism to give it the ‘there-but-for-the-grace-of-God’ impact that it had a hundred years ago. Couple that with generally amateurish and uninspired performances, except, perhaps, for K.B. Merrill as Nora, and you have something that is better left unseen. Better savored in some future, more respectful production. Talijancic is a director with some style and vision, but he has a tendency to go too far and seem too misogynist, as he proved with his inventive staging of “The Bacchae” last year. More schooling, Ivan, and less violence, please.
Now, when it comes to Jack O’Brien’s retooling of the hilarious William Congreve Restoration comedy, “The Way of the World,” we have a horse — and a bevy of resplendent costumes — of a different color.
Outdoors on the Festival Stage, O’Brien takes considerable liberties with the seventeenth century masterpiece. Dakin Matthews’ new adaptation sports a very modern, up-to-the-minute prologue and epilogue, and the production features a magnificently eclectic array of costume genres. The complex intricacies of the plot are not overly elucidated. But the urbane, scintillating wit is intact, and it is given center stage. There may be swirling trees and occasionally over-the-top physical comedy, but the language triumphs over all. And the performances, from the leading characters to the multitudinous secondaries, are sublime.
If you can ignore the plot opacities — I found the written explication much more difficult to follow than the onstage machinations — you will get a million laughs. Those pithy maxims about marriage, fidelity, hypocrisy and vengeance could have been written yesterday. They don’t need to be tampered with in the slightest bit.
O’Brien has the savvy, the wit and the experience to be playful but reverential, and we’re all the better for it. Congreve smiles down on the Globe, while Ibsen whirls in his grave.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.