Fast-paced ‘Nora’ updates Ibsen for 21st century

First produced in 1879, Swedish dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” — in which a young wife and mother finds her own inner strength in the face of a domineering husband and oppressive society — still resonates with audiences.

Ingmar Bergman’s stage version, “Nora,” streamlined to focus on the five principal characters, suits our fast-paced times with its whirlwind plot and its characters’ rapid attitude adjustments.

The dizzying pace places quite a burden on the actors: They must absorb and respond to shocking changes of circumstance in the course of an hour and 40 minutes in Shotgun Players’ minimalist, intermission-less staging.

Without her husband Torvald’s knowledge, Nora, viewed as a charming child (a “doll” by Torvald) has borrowed money from Krogstad, an unscrupulous colleague of Torvald’s. That money was necessary to save Torvald from a health crisis.

Now Nora is secretly repaying the loan.

But things quickly spiral out of control when Krogstad blackmails Nora. Also in the mix are the couple’s close friend Dr. Rank, and an old schoolmate of Nora’s with pressing needs of her own.

Among director Beth Wilmurt’s intriguing expressionist choices: The main action is on an almost bare platform (set by Maya Linke) emanating from a back wall with a sliding door in it; the wallpaper is an unnerving pattern of black and white illustrations of women’s faces, and the wall itself advances and recedes at a few well-chosen, starkly dramatic moments.

Characters tend to come and go from a shadowy periphery. And, in this period piece, only Nora — she who must break free of traditional mores by play’s end — wears modern slacks.

The staging is wonderfully taut: Actors move in clearly defined, economically precise patterns and are often unnaturally stationary, reflecting their constrained environment. On opening night, though, some cast members had not yet made that precision organic.

In addition, in an uneven cast, there are some wooden line deliveries and thin characterizations.

As the heroine who morphs from childlike impulsivity to steely-eyed self-confidence, Jessma Evans is impressive. She’s an open-faced Nora whose thought processes are beautifully transparent even as she masks them from her husband, and whose perfectly paced evolution is utterly convincing. In the final scene, as she hovers outside the playing area, she actually looks physically different, her face, so round and cherubic in the first scene, now calm and sculpted.

REVIEW
Nora
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes April 23
Tickets: $25 to $40
Contact: (510) 841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org

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