When the curtain opens on the world of “Nora,” audiences are meet with a long gray tent, a haunting violin composition, delicately handcrafted but muted costumes, an even more haunting skeletal Christmas tree and a reimagining of the most performed play in history.
When: Friday-Sunday, March 22-24, 7:30 p.m.
Where: 1400 Cowart St.
How much: $10
The Theater for the New South’s production of “Nora,” the Ingmar Bergman adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” enters its second weekend run at the vacant Cowart Street space formerly occupied by Niko’s Southside Grill.
“We choose work that challenges us as artists, work that we can reconceptualize and retextualize and experiment with,” said Michael Rudez, Theater for the New South’s artistic director.
Reworking a classic
“What we’ve done with this show is stripped it of time and place so that it’s definitely not Norway, making it an any man’s scenario,” he continued. “People can put their own thoughts and feelings onto the work.”
“A Doll’s House” is the story of a woman named Nora whose past mistake—the forgery of her father’s signature on a bond—threatens to destroy her family, a testament to the ideal 1870s household, but rather sets off an implosion of her “perfect” world as she realizes the flaws in her marriage.
The play closes with the shocking-for-its-time-ending of Nora leaving her husband, her children, her home and her duties to start a life for herself.
Bergman’s adaption, Rudez and marketing director Megan Hollenbeck noted, pares down the excess of the original three-act play, allowing subplots to move forward and Nora’s dilemma and eventual choice to be crystallized for the audience.
Though the Theater for the New South production, directed by Blake Harris, takes its own interpretation on the adaption, Rudez said he found a solution to his own predicament with the believability of Ibsen’s work.
“Nora has always been 99 percent gung ho for the family, and then for 1 percent, she changes and decides to walk out on her entire life,” he said. “But this version is a lot different from that—Bergman gives Nora the chance to walk out at the end of every scene where you can see the wheels turning.”
The contours of a gray canvas
The dimensions of the production’s found space, which has been home to more than one restaurant, provide Theater for the New South a chance to stage an alley configuration: a long, rectangular floor plan.
Rather than cluttering the audience’s view with ornately painted panels often used in period pieces, the set is similar to a run space in which the actors and the audience are enveloped by a huge tent.
Designer Rebecca Rouse decorated the austere set with a few choice pieces—a bare Christmas tree and recovered period chairs—to anchor the abstract grays, whites and blacks on stage.
The more sparse nature of the scenery made room for more of a visual and visceral investment in the costumes and music of “Nora,” designed by Angela Sweet and composed by Tim Hinck.
Sweet sourced garments from the Theatre Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and crafted some by hand, including a corset for the main character.
The fabric becomes a fluid voice for the characters’ innermost thoughts and the play’s overarching intellectual movement. The costumes transition from scene to scene so that period clothing gives way to a 1920s wardrobe and then even more modern attire, mirroring Nora’s own turn from a model 19th-century wife and mother to another kind of woman.
“We’re working with a pretty minimal set, and the lights are pretty minimal too, so the story the costumes are able to tell has really enriched the play,” Hollenbeck said.
Similarly, the production’s music undergoes a shift. Hinck employed a poignant string theme as the basis of his score, introducing it at the beginning in its most stripped version with a recording of himself playing the violin.
The simple melody then morphs into a modern track with a beat and distortion levels for a much grittier and complex sound, just in time to soundtrack Nora walking out the door.