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Theatre Reviews Modern performances make Soulpepper’s A Doll’s House feel fresh

Katherine Gauthier, middle, seems more free on stage than ever before here, giving us a woman about her age as one would move, speak and perhaps break down.

Cylla von Tiedemann

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
A Doll’s House
Written by
Henrik Ibsen
Genre
Play
Directed by
Daniel Brooks
Actors
Katherine Gauthier
Company
Soulpepper
City
Toronto

Nora enters her house in the half-light, up to her neck in a stack of boxes from a shopping trip, walking slowly, ceremonially, one step at a time. As soon as the lights come up, however, she's off to the races – and then barely stops moving, dancing, laughing, shrieking and sprinting her way around an obstacle course of chic furniture littered across Lorenzo Savoini's ultrawhite set for the next two and a half hours.

Director Daniel Brooks's new modern-dress production of A Doll's House at Soulpepper features a central performance from Katherine Gauthier as a Nora who is not so much a doll as an action figure.

It must be exhausting to perform – but it's truly exciting to watch, a nervy tour de force that pulls dramatic literature's best-known housewife firmly into the present through contemporary body language and speech patterns rather than fully updated circumstances.

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Nora's man-child of a husband, Torvald (Christopher Morris), likes to treat her like a favourite toy – any behaviour out of step leading to belittling references to "little fritter bird" and "little miss stubborn shoes."

But Gauthier's Nora is an enthusiastic, flirtatious participant in this play-acting at the start.

The two's interactions are an unsettling mix of childish and sexual right from the first scene of this production – where Torvald pulls Nora onto his lap and bounces her there while ho-ho-ho-ing his way through lines about how the household expenses will be met over the holidays.

The plot of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 drama surrounds a secret loan that Nora took out in order to pay for Torvald to recover from a year-long illness in Italy – though, here, it's implied through a very millennial shrug that maybe she didn't particularly mind going deep into debt for a year in the Mediterranean either.

Nothing about Nora's circumstances as a kept woman secretly earning money to pay back her debt really seems to bother her at first. But when moneylender Krogstad (Damien Atkins, suitably dissolute) shows up with proof that she forged her late father's co-sign on the loan, she must either persuade her husband to keep him on at the bank that he manages – or face the music, which will also make her face the realities surrounding her relationship.

Seeking help from Torvald's friend Dr. Rank (Diego Matamoros), she starts to realize exactly how much her sexuality and men's friendship are linked. And from her widowed friend Kristine (Oyin Oladejo), she begins to see there might be another way for a woman to live in this new era.

There's much that feels far away in Ibsen's play even if the loan's been updated from 1,200 speciedaler to $48,000 in this version by Frank McGuinness.

But through the thoroughly modern performances Brooks has corralled, it feels entirely fresh.

Even when Torvald complains that Krogstad calls him by his "Christian name" in front of other employees, there's something in Morris's peevish, petty man-child demeanour that suggests any number of slight contemporary grievances – like maybe he CCs him on too many e-mails.

Gauthier does the same – showing Nora's nervous nature manifesting itself in a number of ways, from secret cigarettes and gobbled snacks in private, to compulsively applying lipstick or gnawing on her fingernails when others are around.

Although Gauthier entered the Soulpepper Academy in 2013 and has been in a steady stream of productions at the Toronto theatre company, this performance feels like a startling debut.

She seems more free on stage than ever before here, giving us a woman about her age – the way one would actually move, actually speak and perhaps actually break down once realizing how little she really knows him or herself.

It's realism updated and enough to make you wonder whether things have changed all that much.

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