In this era of social justice movements, the myriad political talking points and petitions for change lead headlines.
In keeping with this idea, director and KU assistant professor Peter Zazzali is in the process of producing the upcoming play, “A Doll’s House,” which will open on Saturday, Nov. 14.
“Despite the fact that Ibsen, the writer of the play, refused to call his work 'feminist', 'A Doll’s House' is one of the most pro-women’s rights productions still to this day,” Zazzali said.
The play portrays a discontent housewife, who — though she may have a beautiful home, healthy children and a successful husband — realizes that she had made no achievement on her own and that her life is empty without personal accomplishment. Nora Helmer, the play’s protagonist, tries desperately to make something of herself and discover why she feels so empty in a world dominated by men that don’t understand why she isn’t happy despite all that her husband has provided her.
“It’s a harsh look, a realistic look, at what it was to be a woman in the 19th century, and I think still has very strong relevance today,” Zazzali said. “We still have an inequality among the sexes. We still have gender imbalance when it comes to power and influence in our society. Women are still well behind their male counterparts in leadership positions in everything from religious spheres, to the educational sphere, to the corporate sector, right up into the government.”
Even more than 130 years after the play’s opening night, the message still seems to be clear and understandable. At the end of the play, Nora Helmer slams the door on her life, leaving her husband, home and three children behind, to find a life with meaning.
“That door slam is famously, or infamously, known as 'the door slam heard around the world,'" Zazzali said. “It was the unexpected shot at what was considered traditional marriage — to have the patriarchal set-up and for the woman to be submissive to her husband.”
The play was shocking for 19th century Europeans, and it was banned in several countries. Zazzali said he hopes to keep that raw sense of reality alive in his performance to preserve the message as strong as it was more than a century ago.
“Ibsen wrote some really powerful scenes, and I think that some performances haven’t done them justice, and I hope to bring that emotion and sense of being trapped to the play,” Zazzali said. “The set and costumes are beautiful and well designed and I think that only adds to the narrative that no matter how pretty a cage is, it’s still a cage.”
Zazzali plans to show the partnership between Nora and Torvald Helmer, which Henrik Ibsen implied as the gritty truth of an abusive relationship, to highlight the themes of the play.
“Nora is an abused and broken down woman,” Zazzali said. “But despite that, she still manages to pick herself up and leave, which may be both the most courageous and reckless thing to do, given that there were no job or educational opportunities available to her at the time.”
Although the play clearly focuses on women’s rights and the oppression that women faced at the time, Adrian Brothers, a senior playing the role of the porter, said the play is, broadly, a “human” play.
“Every character in the play has some sort of desperation in their lives,” Brothers said. “There are extremes on all sides, and I think that the play does a wonderful job of representing the human condition.”
Brothers said he is excited to be working with Zazzali for the second time. He said that even though the play is more than a century old, the content is still as relatable and relevant as it was at its publication.
“A well-written play doesn’t need to be from any time period,” Brothers said. “A well-written play reaches into the heart of what it is to be human and shows that in its raw form for the world to see.”
Zazzali said he is confident that his production would be unique as well as in keeping with the themes. Brothers agrees.
“He’s got such a vision,” Brothers said. “He’s very calm and thoughtful and humble, but that’s not to say that he has a problem getting his ideas across. We’ve been rehearsing since September, and in that time he’s crafted the relationship between Nora and Torvald so meticulously you’d think the actors themselves have that same relationship.”
Zazzali attributes the chemistry to those students, who understand the serious and relatable content that he and Brothers say should be seen.
“We’ve got a great crew here, and I think that each person here adds something special to the piece,” Zazzali said. “Though we are going for an accurate design with the costumes and the set, I did not cast actors to fit the time frame, meaning that not everybody is going to be the white, blue-eyed, Norwegian-looking character that Ibsen would’ve used, and I think that adds a depth to the story and a character that wouldn’t be there typically.”
Zazzali also seems proud of his set designers and said the set will be as beautiful as the gilded cage it’s supposed to represent. Brothers said it eerily resembles a bird cage.
“We’ve worked very hard to get all the symbolism and reality in the set and costumes as Ibsen wrote,” Zazzali said.
“A Doll’s House” will open on Saturday, Nov. 14 in the Crafton-Preyer Theatre. Curtains open at 7:30 p.m.
— Edited by Maddie Farber