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Nora Helmer’s world

A forerunner of feminism updated and as relevant as ever

Jenny Vaughn Hall as Nora and Matt Shimkus as Torvald in A Doll’s House. Photo courtesy Harlequin Productions

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Henrik Ibsen's controversial classic A Doll's House as presented at Harlequin Productions, is stunning. And as relevant now as it was when it shocked theater-goers in 1879. Director Aaron Lamb has updated it with modern sets, costumes, music, and a highly stylized opening and closing that are breathtaking.

For the first time in the almost 20 years I have been reviewing shows at Harlequin, there is no constructed set behind the actors, but only a series of wrinkled off-white curtains, and on the floor nothing but a rolled-up carpet and a big white X. Then the carpet is unrolled, and furniture is brought in by actors in choreographed movements. Similar and shocking set changes happen at the end (but no spoiler here). The set is designed by Jeannie Beirne.

The costumes by Darren Mills cleverly combine Victorian dresses for the women and modern suits for the men that look like that could have been worn by Herman's Hermits in 1965. All the costumes are in dull colors that contrast strikingly with the brilliant black, white and dark brown of the furniture -- all of which is dramatically lighted by lighting designer Mark Thomason. All this plus sound by Gina Salerno and properties by Harrison Fry combine to highlight the differences and similarities in Nora Helmer's 19th century and the me-too era of 2019, which is palpable in this production of Ibsen's play.

A Doll's House was scandalous for when it was first performed because it dared question the traditional roles of men and women.

Nora (Jenny Vaughn Hall) has been trapped throughout her adult life in a marriage ruled with an iron hand by her husband, Torvald (Matt Shimkus), who calls her his "little song bird" and "my pigeon" and other sickeningly sweet endearments that all emphasize that the wife belongs to the husband. Torvald is now a successful banker, but there was a time when he was quite ill, and Nora saved him by secretly borrowing money to take him on a healing trip to Italy (secretly because she can't let him know it was she who saved him; to do so would shatter his ego and his view of her as his helpless little woman). But now comes Nils Krogstadt (Brian S. Lewis), the man who loaned her the money, threatening to tell Torvald if she doesn't influence her husband to let him stay employed at the bank. Nora has had all she can take of Krogstadt's threats and her phony little-pigeon life, and she rebels dramatically.

Hall's depiction of Nora is an acting tour de force as she rapidly changes from a money-grubbing shopaholic to a pliant little wifey to a scheming manipulator to a happy-go-lucky party girl, until she finally allows herself to be her true self and stand up free from her marriage bond. Her acting is a sight to behold. Throughout most of the first act, which runs almost an hour and 40 minutes, Shimkus plays Torvald as calm and self-assured, and as an actor he allows his co-star Hall to take and hold the spotlight. But in the second act he bursts loose and becomes as explosive as she is. Watching the two of them at work is exhilarating and exhausting -- such emotional energy!

The remaining cast members are also commendable. They are: Beverly Jenden-Riedlinger as Helene, the Helmer housekeeper; Marianna de Fazio as Nora's longtime friend, Kristine; Russ Holm as family friend Dr. Rank. Holm and Shimkus play drunk as well as I've seen anyone play drunk.

A DOLL'S HOUSE, 8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through May 25, State Theater, 202 4th Ave. E., Olympia, $35 general, $32 seniors and military, $20 youth, 360.786.0151,

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