Mute Dolls? A Show of Looks

by Elena Lagon

Ibsen’s words are startling, well-chosen, poignant, and thought-provoking. He is a revered playwright and we’ve started off at an advantage: the play itself is SO good. Reading the play or hearing a recording could tell you that. But in rehearsal, I’m just starting to see how much the visual aspect–faces, clothes, hair, expressions, glances, and gestures–matters.

Today we did makeup and hair and full costumes for the first time. Without even being “in character” or saying a word, we were entirely transformed, and I was dumbfounded. Outside friends who saw me backstage didn’t recognize me and I gained a good fifteen or twenty pounds in costume. Nora was a sexy zombie, Torvald her stately, overworked master. Rank was more dignified in his suit than I’d ever imagined, and his pain was more noticeable as the lines on his forehead wrinkled. Why is it that these talented actors with which I’ve surrounded myself had never seemed so real to me? What is it about this effortless transformation that was so, well, transformative to me?

Maybe this is because Nora, and to an even greater extent, Torvald, are so very interested in looks. Nora relishes in her attractiveness, allowing her to “look good in everything,” and spends great portions of money on outfitting “the littlies.” Torvald suggests Mrs. Linde should crochet because it’s prettier than knitting. Torvald and Rank can’t wait to see Nora’s costume. Time and worry are spent on fixing said costume so Torvald can show off his pretty possession. Or maybe it’s the era. Late nineteenth-century women were seen and not heard, men didn’t dare insult, and raw, true emotions don’t reveal themselves but for short moments.

At first, the idea of silent gestures at different levels as interaction felt weird, like mime or interpretive dance. How could Anne-Marie tell Nora she made me so incredibly sad neglecting her own children, because I’d had no choice but to do so for mine? How could Krogstad effectively mix his hurt and love for Mrs. Linde? How could Nora communicate her revelation that she needed to leave everything she knew? But it works. I realized these glances, lip bites, reaches, and touches are mute interactions, but come from the same place as voiced emotions. That’s why our 200% Charlie Chaplin runs work–we need no help from language or vocalization to access that emotional storage and thought that allows us to act, to BE our roles.

So when everyone put on their petticoats and jackets, we changed stature, and needed no words to be who we needed to be. When we’ve mastered our outward appearances and our reflection of subtext and inner emotion and add language, that’s the end. I only hope that with words, our performances with be that much more powerful.

1 Comment

  • Jules Odendahl-James says:

    Elena —
    Ellen & I have discussed for a while now how much the piece comes “alive” when you all add this gestural life, especially exaggerated, to the intricately plotted dialogue. It’s like strokes of color filling in a detailed black and white sketch (I guess it’s not surprising that I’d think that given the show’s B&W palette).

    I think this infusion of energy makes so much sense because the heightened physical language matches Ibsen’s heightened dramatic language. When those two things come together it reads capital M “Melodramatic” but I think it’s more accurate to call it Theatrical, a deliberate tension that the stage invites (and can try to ameliorate or intensify) between the “reality” of the dramatic situation and its representation.

    The interesting tension in this production, as you seem to anticipate in the last paragraph of your post, is going to be how much everything together (acting, lights, costume, sound, video, set/props) produces a frisson out of that tension, allowing the audience to be conscious that they’re watching a play but still sucked into and thrilled by the characters’ emotional worlds. I, for one, can’t wait!