Knee Deep Theater

at the Cook County Theatre Department

It sounds like a great idea at first: the world of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is based on hypocrisy and the subjugation of women, and the world of 1950s television sitcoms is also based on hypocrisy and the subjugation of women–so why not stage Ibsen’s 1879 classic as a 50s TV sitcom? To that end, director Craig Ricci Shaynak poses two mock cameras at the corners of a stripped-down soundstage and uses a canned laugh track. The set is furnished in Danish modern and the female characters wear Dior-style gowns. The show even has a sponsor with a product to be plugged–instead of sneaking macaroons behind her husband’s back, Nora now noshes on Frango mints.

Ibsen’s Victorian classic is not so easily repackaged, however; the metaphor just doesn’t stick. Only a short way into act one, the sinister Krogstad threatens to reveal Nora’s clandestine financial dealings to her husband. In a 50s sitcom, her reaction to such bullying would be to roll her eyes, wail like a baby, or concoct some patently ridiculous solution (think Lucille Ball); but by remaining serious and apparently cognizant of her dilemma, Nora dispels any illusion that this is a lighthearted 30-minute comedy.

Unfortunately, she and the other characters remain the flat stereotypes of farce even as they confront their various dilemmas. Dr. Rank, played by Dirk N. Voetberg, remains the doddering old geezer (rendered more ludicrous by his TV-actor attempts to hog the screen) as he talks about his own imminent death from congenital venereal disease. Andrew M. Lyons as Torvald Helmer plays the indulgent, uninvolved father of the 50s TV family so thoroughly, expressing displeasure only through mild irritation or playful reprimand, that his outburst of anger at learning of his wife’s deception seems to come from another man entirely. And Lisa M. Friedman as Nora never changes from the featherheaded spendthrift Kewpie doll, not even when she delivers Ibsen’s famous “duty to myself” speech, long considered the quintessential feminine declaration of independence. Indeed, despite Nora’s protests that her helplessness has been engendered by the domination of her father and the boyish passivity of her husband, the production’s curious emphasis on money and the TV show’s title identifying Nora as the protagonist of the series give rise to the suspicion that Nora’s childishness is actually a manipulative strategy on her part and that a week after leaving wimpy Torvald she will find a new, stronger daddy to pay the bills. An interesting premise for a play, perhaps, but not Ibsen’s Doll’s House.

It seems likely that the inability of the 50s-sitcom analogy to sustain itself became evident too late in the development process to be either fiddled with or abandoned. Whatever the reasons, we are left with a patchwork production whose universe shifts too abruptly and too often to reveal anything new about any of the societies it purports to analyze. It’s a shame, too, since the Knee Deep company shows flashes of genuine talent, and a flat-out modern-dress intepretation of A Doll’s House–without the TV-sitcom element–might have worked splendidly.