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A Modern Marriage: Director Melia Bensussen on the Contemporary Flair of A Doll’s House

MELIA BENSUSSEN’S PRODUCTIONS AT THE HUNTINGTON HAVE COUNTED BOTH NEW PLAYS — KIRSTEN GREENIDGE’S LUCK OF THE IRISH — AND CLASSICS — CLIFFORD ODETS’ AWAKE AND SING! NOW SHE TAKES ON HENRIK IBSEN’S A DOLL’S HOUSE IN A NEW TRANSLATION BY BRITISH PLAYWRIGHT BRYONY LAVERY. BEFORE REHEARSALS BEGAN, SHE SPOKE TO DRAMATURG CHARLES HAUGLAND ABOUT THE PRECONCEPTIONS THAT WE BRING TO IBSEN’S WORK AND HOW SHE IMAGINES HER PRODUCTION WILL SURPRISE AUDIENCES.

Charles Haugland (Artistic Programs and Dramaturgy): Producing Director Christopher Wigle had been in conversation with you about a number of titles for your next project at the Huntington, but when this one came up, you really jumped at it as being one of your dream projects. Can you talk about how this play rose to the top of your list?

Melia Bensussen (Director): I assisted on a terrific production of A Doll’s House 30 years ago, and then when I started teaching directing to students, I returned to Ibsen because I thought the structure of the play was both spare and elegant. Every word has weight and import. There’s nothing extraneous and it’s very focused, so it was a very good text to use to teach students how to analyze a text. Every year when I taught it, I started doing more and more research about the play and realized that I had fallen in love with it in the rehearsal room all those many years ago. At some point, students in class started asking me, “When are you going to direct this? You obviously love it so much.” I started to think I should never direct it, because it had lived so long in me, it might become an obsessive endeavor. But when the Huntington proposed the play to me, I knew it was time. It’s just delightful and kind of terrifying.

CH: Can you talk about what was important to you in terms of how the casting would shape the material?

MB: Traditionally in the US, Ibsen is cast with much older actors. But A Doll’s House is about a young marriage: they’ve been married eight years, and she went straight from her father’s house to her husband’s house. She was a popular girl in school, and he’s just had his first big promotion. Everything in the text points out their youth. It puts her, really, in her late 20s and him at the most at early 30s. That really was an organizing principle for me, because there are connections: the character of Mrs. Linde went to school with Nora, and Krogstad went to school with Torvald. This group of people trying to make their way in the world in their 20s and early 30s was a very moving story to me. The decisions you make at those ages have huge repercussions.

Also, the adaptation that the Huntington has chosen is so great, and has never been professionally produced in the US. It excited me in terms of how immediate and modern the language is. So during the audition process, I was looking for actors who really had a passion for language and an ability to be charismatic and present on a stage. I wanted everyone to have a kind of sharpness and wit, and to find actors who brought an aspect of sensuality to all the roles. Some people will find this most surprising — but I think Ibsen’s plays are very sexy. He’s really capturing how human intimacy and how sexuality shapes relationships.

CH: Art lovers may notice that the couple in the poster for the production is inspired by an Edvard Munch painting, which has been one of your visual touchstones. Why Munch?

MB: Part of what I really wanted to do was shake the play out of any feeling that it was distant to us or far away. Munch was a contemporary of Ibsen’s, though he outlived him. They were compatriots, both from Norway, and Munch designed the set for the first production of Ghosts. But we’ve been inspired by Munch’s later work from the 1920s which creates emotion through color. He’s very daring. He lets go of naturalism and really paints canvases that speak to the emotional reality more than the literal one. That’s what I’m hoping this production of the play does — captures the boldness of the play through color and through movement.

CH: How far away are we today from 19th century ideas about marriage? What does the play have to say to a contemporary audience?

MB: Ibsen asks us all to consider how you remain an individual while living in a larger society. This is a theme through much of his work. How do you stay true to yourself? Marriage becomes a microcosm of this. When the play premiered, he was awarded a prize by a women’s league for his “feminist” sentiments. He responded that he considered himself more a humanist. It’s not to say that he wasn’t a feminist, in many ways he was — but he is examining how challenging it is to live in any intimate relationship and hold on to your genuine self. I think that speaks to men and to women. Torvald, the husband in the play, has been viewed as a villain in many productions, but I believe he is an equal protagonist to Nora in the play. They each have fantasies about what the other will do and who the other person is. In many relationships, it is a challenge to get past the fantasies of what we think the relationship is versus what the reality of it is.


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