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Lars Eidinger and Anne Tismer in Nora
(Photo © Arno Declair)
It's common knowledge that drug addicts habitually increase their dosages to get their accustomed kicks. Perhaps for similar reasons, European directors take abundant liberties in the hope of achieving shock levels that equal the jolt experienced by Henrik Ibsen's first audiences. It's a major challenge, since theatergoers were so throttled by A Doll's House when it first appeared that signs went up all over Oslo saying, "Do not discuss A Doll's House here."

Similar signs won't likely be posted anywhere as a result of Berlin director Thomas Ostermeier's skirmish with Ibsen's century-old text, known in Germany as Nora. Still, ticket buyers who are eager to keep abreast of the latest avant-garde shenanigans on the Continent may leave BAM's Harvey Theater heatedly arguing the merits of what they've seen as well as what they've heard. (The decibel level of the production is frequently ear-splitting.) This despite the 36-year-old Ostermeier's having said in at least one interview, "In Germany I'm considered a very conventional, even conservative director."

I know what he means. From some perspectives, Ostermeier is conventional and conservative. He tries hard to stun the complacent bourgeoisie with his Nora innovations, yet all of the rambunctious activity has a "been there, done that" quality. This includes the new ending, which calls for Nora Helmer to wave a gun where Ibsen has her merely slam the front door as she leaves her domineering husband. In terms of reconstituted Ibsen, we've been there and done that as recently as the Mabou Mines Doll's House last season and Ivo van Hove's recently closed Hedda Gabler.

Ostermeier's updated specifics for the production from Berlin's Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz involve, firstly, Jan Pappelbaum's Bauhaus set. Two of Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chairs and a Mies footstool sit prominently downstage; a huge aquarium, populated at one end by real fish, rivets the eye a bit farther upstage. The multi-level, generously appointed domicile, featuring a living-room runway, is extremely elaborate and even shifts frequently to lend the hyperactive carryings-on a cinematic flair. It's a contemporary enough arena in which the upscale Helmers and friends can cavort -- yet, when you think about it, the Bauhaus look is something you might have seen in any home anytime during the past 70 years. To some extent, the revolving set is a metaphor for something that's intended to look ultra-modern but isn't.

In this environ -- which Nora (the kinetic, game Anne Tismer) calls a "Barbie house" even though Barbie has slammed a few doors herself -- she's initially Ibsen's docile wife and mother, his (ugh!) "little rabbit." But when she realizes that she could be revealed to her cellphone-happy hubby Torvald (the properly scornful Jörg Hartmann) as a forger indebted to the conniving Krogstad (Kay Bartholomäus Schulze, with steam coming out of both ears), she quickly reaches the point of a nervous breakdown. Before long, she's dancing the hootchie-coo in front of those assembled and climbing into the aquarium to wet herself down before hiking her skirt and inserting it into her panties. (The outfit that costume designer Almut Eppinger gives her to wear about the house is of the trendy midriff-baring variety.) When the time comes for Nora to attend a costume party, she gets herself up in gun-moll garb, complete with caked blood. According to the press materials, she's going as Lara Croft!

Of everyone else populating the Helmer household, shouting and laughing with circus-clown boisterousness, only Nora's old friend Mrs. Linde (Jenny Schily) maintains her calm. The others -- and this includes the kiddies (Milena Bühring, Constantin Fischer, Robin Meisner) -- behave as if their inhibitions have long since evaporated. There's an early toy gun battle that music designer Lars Eidinger makes especially raucous with heavy metal rock tapes; the fracas is intended to foreshadow Nora's later gun toting. (Annie Lennox, another of our age's angst emblems, eventually is heard singing "Don't Ask Me Why.") The men are especially frisky. Torvald, who's increasingly disturbed, also takes a fully clothed bath in the handy aquarium and is positively giddy when he learns that Krogstad is retracting his threats. Both Krogstad and Dr. Rank (the nicely scary Lars Eidinger), who's evidently dying of AIDS and wears angel's togs for the party, attack Nora as they clumse near the white Barcelona chairs. Oddly enough, although family members often eavesdrop, no one comes to Nora's aid when Krogstad loudly attempts to rape her.

Ostermeier's aims are clear. At a time when the world has taken on heightened terrors and nerves have been that much more frayed, he wants A Doll's House to have the face-slap effect it initially had. It's not enough, he insists, that Nora slam a door; too many women have slammed too many doors in the 100-plus years since Nora banged out of Torvald's life. But turning her into the raving woman exposed here is a mistake; she's so far gone that, by the time she sits Torvald down to explain her decision, she no longer seems to be someone who'd reach a rational conclusion. Instead of her slamming a door, a door should be slammed upon her: the padded door of an asylum. In trying to reinvigorate Ibsen, Ostermeier betrays him. What we need is a moratorium on Ibsen updates -- or, if not a moratorium, the realization that a truly shocking new production of A Doll's House would be a first-rate treatment of the unaltered original manuscript.

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