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“A Doll’s House” times two: DCPA Theatre Company experiments with epic-length production

Ibsen’s classic and a sequel written 140 years later staged together allows viewers to toggle between time periods and consider the social progress of women

Marianna McClellan as Nora in "A Doll's House," left, and Barbra Wengerd as Nora in "Part 2." (Photo provided by Adams VisCom)
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I attended the double-header of “A Doll’s House” and “A Doll’s House Part 2” on Saturday.

That meant strapping in for Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic when the sun was still shining, taking a dinner break after the 2-hour, 10-minute play (plus a 15-minute intermission), then returning to the theater for Lucas Hnath’s clever 2017 sequel at 7 p.m., a 90-minute run with no intermission.

It’s a serious time commitment for Coloradans, especially when the leaves are turning and mountains beckon. Longer than you’d spend downtown at the ballpark. But the experiment by the DCPA Theatre Company — which is now the first company anywhere to present both Ibsen’s original play and Hnath’s modern sequel at the same time in repertory — is a success.

It was a uniquely fulfilling experience to see the plays back to back, in one day, from the same seat at both productions. Audiences can have the same deep dive, a two-play journey on Nov. 23 or any Sunday through Nov. 24. The first show begins at 2 p.m., the second at 7 p.m. at the Ricketson.

It’s possible to buy tickets to the shows separately, of course. But you should try the double feature. (In fact, there’s a 17% discount if you buy the pair for the same day.

I’m glad to report that, in this time-consuming theatrical journey, the whole equals more than the sum of its parts. The ideas in the first play, so explosively controversial at the time, are expanded, enhanced and questioned in the sequel.

Let me say first, I’d never done anything like this — not the Wagner Ring Cycle, not the James Joyce birthday reading of “Ulysses”, not the two parts of “Angels in America” (I saw that spread over different days). This “Doll’s House” marathon was like a day-long film festival but about a single topic. Like binge-watching “The Crown,” but with a crowd.

I came away with renewed respect for Ibsen’s bold feminist play and took pleasure in catching all the references Hnath makes to the source material in his comical “Part 2.” If I hadn’t revisited the original just a few hours earlier (it had been decades since I saw the classic), I probably wouldn’t have recalled all the allusions to Nora’s habits and her husband Torvald’s oppressive quirks. The idea of a woman walking out on her family — ignoring her young children! — is still difficult even as we cheer Nora for rejecting her subjugation by Torvald, who constantly refers to her in diminutives (“my little squirrel,” “my little skylark”).

The juxtaposition of the plays allows the mind to toggle between time periods, even though only 15 years have elapsed in story-time, the writers were working 140 years apart. The social progress of women, or lack thereof, the evolution of the concept of marriage, the freedom at last of the servant class to speak, is on display. The hold of tradition is evident, too, when Nora predicts in her “Part 2” return, set in 1894, that “In 30 years, people won’t even believe in marriage!”

The line gets a grim grunt, an uneasy laugh from the audience. Wishful thinking on her part.

The directors, Chris Coleman for “A Doll’s House” and Rose Riordan for “Part 2,” invite us to draw more from each project by comparing/contrasting. Coleman, DCPA Theatre Company artistic director, works with a traditional setting. Nora’s famous door slam on her way out is heard from offstage. Riordan, associate artistic director, takes a more surreal approach, complete with bare set and automatically opening and closing doors.

The choice to have different actors portray the characters in the two productions — Marianna McClellan in “A Doll’s House” and Barbra Wengerd in “Part 2” — makes sense in order to underscore the evolution Nora makes. Not only are the stories set 15 years apart but they require different energies. The Nora in the original is an ingenue, only slowly realizing she has the option to escape the infantilizing treatment of her husband. The Nora in “Part 2” is a liberated whirlwind, a supposedly worldly independent woman returning in triumph. Of course it’s more complicated than that. But seeing that “transformation” on the same stage hours apart heightens the impact.

Only one character is inhabited by the same actor in both productions: Anne-Marie, the nanny who raised Nora and who is now raising Nora’s children, is played by Leslie O’Carroll in both plays. O’Carroll cannily scores the best laughs in “Part 2.”

If “immersion” is today’s hip performance art buzzword, this is immersion in a world of ideas and feelings, percolating over hours. It’s not tech-driven virtual or enhanced reality, but the “Doll’s House” double feature provides a similar sensual immersion, a satisfying saturation in alternate views and emotions.