By: Adam Buchsbaum
College theater provides a space for budding young actors to stretch their abilities, try out new things and grow as performers. An armchair criticism feels unfair to the whole spirit of college theater. CSULB CalRep’s production of Nora has an admirable message, but it is hamstrung by weak source material and a superficial reading of its (albeit limited) potential. There is room for improvement in the production– but isn’t that the whole point of, well, college theater?
You may recognize Nora if you studied Henrik Ibsen’s proto-feminist play A Doll’s House in school. The original play caused quite a stir in its late-19th-century day for questioning male authority and championing female independence.
Nora the housewife is married to the bourgeois banker Torvald while secretly indebted to the slimy Krogstad. Her widowed friend Christine and flirty friend Dr. Rank fill out the cast for another layer of intrigue and add more ways to criticize capitalism (and how it forces petty cruelty) and how a seemingly simple lie can undo everything.
The original can run, say, two hours with an intermission, but Nora strips away the extraneous characters (namely the children and the house-servants) and condenses the intrigue into a modernized 90-minute and intermission-free journey– so, a movie’s length. Fittingly enough, famed classic film director Ingmar Bergman is responsible for this modernized twist. These omissions trim the fat, but they also flatten some of the original’s emotional complexity. Bergman’s Nora gives its actors less depth, forcing them to find it or even create it from the script.
The stage and sound design do nicely fill in some of the blanks. In the front, vaguely antique carpets and wooden chairs (and the Victorian-lite costume design) contrast against the spare modernity of the glossy blackbox theater. A misty forest of aluminum-colored poles at haphazard diagonal angles pepper the back stage area. This creates a mysterious, abstract feeling that evokes, perhaps, Nora’s troubled mind– or perhaps the dangerous outside world away from the comforts of her domestic space. The occasional well placed music cue and beat accent transitory scenes smoothly.
However, Nora sometimes leaves the cast adrift, struggling to own their dialogue. The performers get their chance to shine in an inspired line here or there. But more robotic exchanges would often pass between the characters, without a sense of deeper emotions and subtext underneath. Some blame should be cast on the literal words in the script, which don’t do the actors any favors. The dialogue can be rather stilted and bland, with the characters directly stating how they feel in tedious and redundant exchanges. Finding a way to develop nuance is tricky when the script seemingly works against it.
The character development is similarly difficult to accept. Torvald is initially complicated into a more sympathetic figure and Nora is rendered as a more coquettish woman, perhaps complicit in her oppression. In the original play, Torvald is a condescending ambassador for male cluelessness. As Nora lurches towards its end, under the obligation to have the same ending as its source material, each character abruptly pivots into a convenient archetype: Torvald as a cruel straw man patriarch, and Nora as a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need a man anymore. It’s a hard sell. While the message of female empowerment this creates is undeniably positive, the character development is missing to give Nora’s internal change any poignant punch.
Nora is a decent enough idea for a play, but the script’s own internal weakness hinders the cast from developing something more complex.
Nora continues at the CSULB Studio Theatre, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., through April 23, with shows every night at 8 pm and additional showtimes at 2 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $17. For reservations and information, call (562) 985-5526, or visit web.csulb.edu/colleges/cota/theatre.