The magic of theater is transplanting a seat in a barn into a television studio, into a telenovela, into a home, into a room, into a relationship, into the protagonist’s mind.
Xóchitl Rios-Ellis’s adaptation of “A Doll’s House” took place against the backdrop of a single room, but the drama was enough to fill a whole neighborhood.
The play, originally written by Henrik Ibsen, follows its protagonist, Nora Helmer, through an abusive relationship, a forbidden queer romance and a run in with debt. “A Doll’s House” was shown Nov. 8-10 as part of the Barnstorm Theater’s fall repertoire. Rios-Ellis rewrote the play with a decidedly intersectional lens, centering the experiences of Latinx women. It was performed partially in Spanish.
“As a Latinx woman and actress, I would never be cast as Nora in a traditional production of ‘A Doll’s House,’” Rios-Ellis said. “I wanted to create a version of ‘A Doll’s House’ where people like me, women like me, would be able to be cast and represented.”
Before the lights rise and the set comes into focus, a voice announces the production will be filmed live.
In this world, the stage is a sitcom and the audience is in the studio.
The production’s two acts take place in one living room, colorful and cozy with a glittering tree placing the action sometime in December. An orange wingback chair and purple couch serve mid-century cozy and flickering candles add festivity.
Initially, Amanda Gabriela Astacio-Ceballos portrays Nora Helmer as a flustery sparrow flitting around her room. Her husband Torvald Helmer, played by Jackson Brivic, calls Nora his songbird, making sinister quips like “songbirds are cute, but they spend a lot of money,” and a sneering “you look guilty today.”
The domestic scene oozes heteronormativity. A wife, a husband, 2.5 kids who are referenced, but never seen. Despite the rosy facade, Rios-Ellis doesn’t allow for idyllicism. Already the audience is picking up on repeated references to a secret and a laugh track calls attention to Torvald’s sleazy machismo.
What the audience soon learns is this room is more accurately described as a cage and Nora doesn’t yet have the key.
“Nora is the only one in the show who can hear [the laugh track] and that’s because they’re basically the voice of society laughing at her,” Brivic said. “[…] That’s why it’s most prominent in the first scene where I’m saying all those natural things that would be heard, in the society Torvald’s living in at least.”
In Rios-Ellis’s production, sound drives the story. The expertly timed laugh track guides the audience through scenes like a sitcom or telenovela. The laughter, often punctuated by groans from the audience, underscores Nora’s position caught between a domineering husband and a world that sees her through a similarly controlling lens.
“As this ‘dynamic’ element is added to A Doll’s House, we see Nora grow to analyze and question the world around her,” said sound designer Amber Gerbert Goldsmith in an artist’s statement posted at the Barn. “We see the soundscape of pre-recorded sounds start to crumble around her and begin reflecting her anxieties rather than the produced world she lives in.”
If the soundscape reflects Nora’s subconscious, it unravels with her. Nora starts the play laughing along with her husband, treating his machismo with a “boys will be boys” attitude. By the middle of the show, Nora’s choices are catching up to her and her mind becomes troubled, haunted by the secret she keeps.
As Nora’s thoughts become darker, so does the sound. By act two, Nora knows she’s going to have to confess her debt to Torvald and in every moment she spends alone, her lines are nearly drowned out by the sound of a pounding heartbeat. Red lights flash as the thrumming noise threatens to overtake Nora’s thoughts, but Torvald is so lost in his arrogance that his wife’s suffering goes unnoticed.
“There’s a lot of back and forth and contradictions with Torvald’s character,” Brivic said. “And he fits into that context because he shows any kind of oppression, he’s the main pinnacle idea of oppression.”
Nora’s only respite comes from interactions with other Latinx women. Nora’s friend Cristina Linde and Torvald’s best friend and caretaker Dr. Rank, played by Andrea Pastor and MaVe Farrell, are her confidants, the only characters that offer solace during her tumultuous relationship.
Throughout the play, Nora speaks Spanish to Cristina and Ana Maria, the other Latinx women on stage. Viewers learn Nora’s perilous situation started with $4,000 and a hidden clause, but Cristina is the only character privy to Nora’s secret.
“I always wanted to create a play that includes both of these languages in the way that my own brain works and the way that I know people think and the way other artists have written,” Rios-Ellis said. “[…] The combination of Spanish and English in scenes […] really brings out the gossip, or the chisme, in the play.”
The chisme, along with other directorial and aesthetic choices, blurs the lines between play and telenovela. In a story about inner dialogue, self-discovery and liberation, language separates the liberating from the oppressive. Spanish allows Nora to access parts of herself that she hasn’t been able to access, Rios-Ellis said.
“Nora is living in a dollhouse,” MaVe Farrell said. “What you see on stage is all that she knows.”
Female friendship is a subversive presence in the home. Torvald does his best to maintain his patriarchal control, but Nora, whose life revolves around her sitting room, cultivates relationships that are anything but conventional.
In act two, Dr. Rank confesses feelings for Nora. The awkwardness of reciprocal love gone unacknowledged is palpable. Dr. Rank is a glimpse into a lifestyle Nora could have if freed from the social pressures embodied by Torvald, Farrell said.
“[Nora] was supposed to be into me in the beginning, into our kiss, but then she realizes ‘wait no!’” Farrell said. “It’s such a queer experience to think ‘oh you’re my friend, but I’m also in love with you?’”
Threaded throughout the play are references to a costume party, and a costume Nora is going to great lengths to prepare at the request of her husband. When the night arrives, Nora appears as Carmen Miranda, fruit hat and all. Torvald is dressed like a Spanish conquistador.
The shocking juxtaposition brings the show’s primary tension to a head. Now, the power dynamic is explicit — Nora is the passive sex object to Torvald’s colonial masculinity.
In a cathartic culmination, and after a heated argument, Nora storms out, leaving Torvald weeping, alone, in the dark. Rios-Ellis’s vision grabbed the audience’s attention for two hours, and by the end, the only thing to do was give a resounding standing ovation.
“It’s about connecting with the audience,” Rios-Ellis said. “If I can find different ways to connect with my audience and also to [get] different points across that I wasn’t able to reach before, or create different dimensions or make things more complicated and more interesting and add more love to it, I’m looking for those ways.”