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A double dose of Ibsen

A Doll's House at Dukesbay Theater

Ryan St. Martin and Katelyn Hoffman star in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at Dukesbay in Tacoma. Photo courtesy New Muses Theatre Company

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New Muses Theatre Company is performing two plays by Henrik Ibsen in repertory: A Doll's House and Ghosts. New Muses Managing Artistic Director Niclas Olson, who directs and performs in both plays, explained why he decided to do the two plays on a rotating schedule: "When Ibsen experienced the backlash from A Doll's House, he responded with Ghosts, a play that imagines a different sort of circumstances in a traditional marriage. While A Doll's House is all about Nora gathering the courage to leave her marriage, Ghosts is about the aftermath of Mrs. Alving deciding to stay. I read a quote last year that said Ibsen wrote Mrs. Alving because he wasn't finished with Nora after A Doll's House, and looking at the two scripts together, the parallels are fascinating."

The backlash Olson referred to came from the fact that A Doll's House was essentially considered the world's first feminist play, written in 1879. It made the case for a woman leaving a less-than-satisfying marriage.

I caught the opening performance of A Doll's House. It is a smart play that is both intriguing and provocative, given perhaps more to contemplation than to the bombast of more contemporary plays. Some of the acting opening night seemed a little stilted and hesitant, perhaps due to opening night jitters or perhaps because people in the 19th century were more formal and more reserved than now. Characters such as Nora's husband, Torvald (Ryan St. Martin), might have been stiff and formal, which would make St. Martin's stifled acting a correct portrayal. In a period play like this, set in a culture modern audiences may not relate to, it is hard to separate the characters from the actors. Was Torvald really that expressionless or was St. Martin holding back? Was there something unsettling about Ben Stahl's posture, or was it the result of the fact that the character he was playing, Dr. Rank, was suffering from a hidden but fatal disease?

I felt that the most believable and engaging acting came from the two lead female characters, Katelyn Hoffman as Nora and Kathryn Grace Philbrook as Mrs. Linde. In Hoffman's subtly controlled expressions of anger and joy, I sensed the withheld fury of a woman held prisoner by circumstances. The range of expressions by Philbrook and by Olson as Krogstad, the most complex character in the play, were both noteworthy.

I loved the beautifully layered blue-lighted backdrop (design by Olson), and I loved the equally beautiful white dress that Nora wore (no costumer listed).

Both A Doll's House and Ghosts are plays that are historically important and that intelligently and dramatically depict the evolution of relationships between the sexes. These are plays that should be seen. The audience opening night was pathetically small, and that is a shame. Independent production companies such as New Muses should be better supported by the community.

A DOLL'S HOUSE AND GHOSTS, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m., Sunday through May 22, with additional matinees May 7 and 14, $10, Dukesbay Theater, Merlino Arts Center, 508 S. Sixth Ave., Tacoma, www.NewMuses.com

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