Diane Dowling had a dilemma. As a professor in BMCC's theatre program, she had long wanted to direct a production of Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking drama, A Doll’s House. But its relatively small cast of characters meant that only a handful of students would have an opportunity to appear on a stage.
Then Dowling devised an elegant solution: She would double the number of speaking parts in A Doll’s House by mounting two productions simultaneously, each with its own cast.
A Doll’s House with Cast A will premiere on April 23 at 2 p.m. That evening at 7, Cast B will take the stage. The two casts will switch off in performances through April 26, with Samantha-Symore Henry and Yanece Cotto alternating in the lead role of Nora Helmer.
From 19th-century Norway to 20th –century America
Written in 1879, A Doll’s House cast a harsh light on the subordinate position of women in middle-class society. “Although women have since made great strides toward equality, A Doll’s House still makes important points about marriage, society, equality and personal responsibility,” Dowling says.
As it turned out, double-casting the play was one of two creative leaps Dowling took. The other was to shift the setting—from 19th-century Norway to post-war America.
“It’s easy to dismiss A Doll’s House as a relic from an earlier age, but we know that the problems it depicts haven’t gone away,” Dowling says. “Just two weeks ago, President Obama publicly decried the earnings disparities between men and women.”
But rather than set the play in the present, she chose the 1950s, “when there was a huge push for everyone to settle down and raise big families, with the woman staying home to cook, clean and take care of the children—and being grateful for the opportunity.”
While post-war America may seem remote time from today’s vantage point, “it still has many elements that audiences today can relate to.”
Same script, different interpretations
For the role of Tom, Nora’s domineering banker husband (originally Torvald in the Ibsen play), Dowling cast veteran actor and BMCC theatre major Marc Joseph and Sam Lowenstein, a Liberal Arts major, musician and songwriter.
While both casts are working from the same script, the performances are strikingly different. “Sam and I both bring our own interpretations and experiences to our lines, and that’s one of the great rewards of having a double cast,” says Joseph. “The best way to see the play is to go to both performances.”
Adapting Torvald’s character to a modern setting—and playing him as an African-American—posed a daunting challenge, he adds.
“I had read and seen the play many times and never once pictured Torvald as African-American. But I hope that through my work and Professor Dowling’s tutelage, I’ve given it some credibility.”
Lowenstein was likewise familiar with the play—but initially not excited about being cast as Tom. “I had never found Torvald—or Tom—to be a likable character,” he says.
“But Prof. Dowling was looking for a more balanced and nuanced portrayal, and that made Tom more accessible to me. I found that I could relate to him a bit more easily and not see him purely as a tyrant.”
A twofold challenge
Producing and mounting just one production of A Doll’s House would have been a significant artistic triumph.
“But when you add the demands and time commitment of working with two casts, each with its own dynamics, interpretations and personalities, the achievement of Prof. Dowling and her staff is incredibly impressive,” says Joseph.
Adds Lowenstein, “we really appreciate the time, energy and talent Prof. Dowling, and all the assistant directors, stagehands and support staff put into this project.”
While A Doll’s House is not a musical, the BMCC production drew on the talents of Rolando Jorif, a professor in the English Department as well as an accomplished choreographer. In one of the play’s most telling scenes, Nora dances for Tom, who attempts to control her movements and stifle her spirit.
“Incorporating dance in a serious drama can be complicated, because you have actors dancing as regular people, not professional dancers,” says Dowling. “It should look believable and real—not like actors breaking in dance in a musical. The credit for that goes to Prof. Jorif.”
If Dowling’s decision to produce A Doll’s House with a double cast was a daring one, it has clearly paid off.
“It was a hard work,” she says. “But when I look at the actors in each cast, I’m happy that I didn’t have choose between the two because they’re all so good.”