Moya O'Connell as Ellida Wangel and Ric Reid as Dr. Wangel in The Lady from the Sea - Photo by David Cooper
Between a rock and a hard place?
There are two kinds of spiritual law, two kinds of conscience, one in man and another, altogether different, in woman. They do not understand each other; but in practical life the woman is judged by man's law, as though she were not a woman but a man.
Henrik Ibsen, From Ibsen's Workshop
Ibsen's New Woman pushed the limits society imposed on women, preceding the notion of 1960s feminists. Gail Finney describes this woman as someone who "typically values self-fulfillment and independence rather than the stereotypically feminine ideal of self-sacrifice; believes in legal and sexual equality; often remains single because of the difficulty of combining such equality with marriage; is more open about her sexuality than the 'Old Woman'; is well-educated and reads a great deal; has a job; is athletic or otherwise physically vigorous and, accordingly, prefers comfortable clothes (sometimes male attire) to traditional female garb."
In Ibsen's notes for A Doll's House, he asserts, "A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view."
Alas, Ibsen's heroines do not enjoy an easy time. Hedda Gabler shoots herself in the head; Nora in A Doll's House contemplates the same but simply leaves her family at the end of the play, so what to make of Moya O'Connell writhing naked on a huge rock centre stage at the beginning of The Lady From The Sea?
Camellia Koo's placing of the huge slab makes things even more problematic because the action is limited to one third of the already tiny Court House Theatre, inducing claustrophobia to both cast and audience and causing ushers grief as they steer customers off the edge of the diminished platform. Much of the action is forced to the fringes at the bottom of the staircases.
Ibsen as in Jonathan Franzen's wonderful novel, Freedom, is concerned primarily here with self-determination, and so, O'Connell as Ellida Wangel approximates mermaid status at the start and then ebbs high and low for the duration until a quite subdued and befuddled Ric Reid as her husband, Dr. Wangel, sets her free.
In between, we have Shakespearian-like comedic interludes with Neil Barclay (Ballested) portraying multiple roles from artist to dancer as he ekes out a living by the cold fiord. To maintain the water imagery, we have carp confined in a murky pond and Kyle Blair as Hans Lyngstrand adds more comedic relief with his obsession to become a sculptor (carrying around a piece of marble) and thus obtain a bride like the lively Jacqueline Thair (Bolette Wangel) who would then be automatically fulfilled by his creativity. Sister Hilde Wangel (Darcy Gerhart) delights in making fun of Hans.
Andrew Bunker as Professor Arnholm does a fine job as a Norwegian academic who could use a little of Ellida's salty passion. Mark Uhre as the Stranger is the wild card in the play, and he precipitates the denouement. If Ellida is truly free, who will she chose, and really, why him?
There's not much one can do with a massive rock, but Kevin Lamotte tries a few lighting tricks and Alessandro Juliani provides eerie original music and sound design. Despite being well received by almost a full house, I found The Lady From The Lake to be a dreary play, not in the same league as Hedda and Doll's House, and fortunately there was no intermission. It was all downhill after the opening nudity which certainly helped one focus on that rock!
Director's Notes by Meg Roe
Lay these ideas over and around marriage and you find yourself grappling with some big questions: Why do we choose the partners we do? Why do we choose the lives we do? How is our freedom tempered by these choices? Is there freedom in love?
Perhaps true freedom is loveless - independent of the consideration of others. Because we are responsible for one another in love. We carry each other's hearts, happiness, failures, futures. We shape and are shaped by this vulnerability. In a marriage, a partnership, we are bound, woven up into the fabric of someone else, which is not the same as unadulterated freedom.
And we must continue to make this choice: love, marriage, partnership, is in many ways a series of choosings. To stay. To adapt. To acclimatize. Again and again we reprise the moment of choosing the person we love, in big ways and small, constantly weighing our opportunity to be swept off our feet into the unknown against the sturdy practicality of our existing bargain. Tethering ourselves to our responsibilities or releasing ourselves into the sea.
Erin Shields' beautiful distillation of Ibsen's original play sets these themes of choice, freedom, and responsibility in relief, allowing them to reach forward from Ibsen's time with very little impediment.
Our hearts reside on the same battlefields now as then: "Why - how - will I choose you?"