Highs and Dolls

Ingmar Bergmans adaptation of Henrik Ibsens A Dolls House provides a notable success for the Beer Sheva Theater and Avital Pasternak.

There are productions - and regrettably they are few and far between - in which something happens on the stage, from almost the first moment, that causes the spectator to sit bolt upright in his chair and sharpen all his senses in anticipation of what is to come. This just happened to me at the start of "Nora," Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House," directed by Kfir Azoulay for the Be'er Sheva Theater.

The production's playing space at the Center for the Performing Arts in Be'er Sheva is slightly raised and raked a bit in the direction of the audience. Its shape is a large quadrangle, the sides of which form an angle with the edges of the stage. This is part of Bergman's adaptation, which takes the play from its realistic framework and instead has all the actors onstage for the entire duration of the performance, on the perimeter of the playing area.

Avital Pasternak in Nora
Yossi Tzavker

When the light goes up on the stage, the players are already standing on the perimeter of the playing area, with the Christmas tree already on the stage with presents under it. One of the actors (Amir Krief, whom we later discover plays Torvald Helmer, the "doll's" husband and master ) sends the little girl wearing white to call her mother. The girl crosses the playing space to the back of the stage, opens two sliding doors, exposing a space where snowflakes are hovering, and calls: "Mama!" And it is already clear that the magic of theater is going to happen here.

A blindfolded figure in white dances across the stage at a dash and plays Blindman's Buff with the little girl. When the mother catches the child, the face of Avital Pasternak - who plays Nora - is revealed, and she finishes telling the child a fairy tale whose denouement has a couple living happily ever after. Thus we first encounter the protagonist of the play, participating blindfolded in a children's game.

For the next hour and 40 minutes - three acts performed without an intermission - Nora does not leave the stage. And we participate in a journey in which Nora opens her eyes and, before our eyes, grows from a silly child into a courageous young woman who, at the play's end, leaves the stage through the back exit. She stands amid the snowflakes for a moment, valise in hand, and then turns around and, with a decisive movement, shuts the door on her false marriage. The stage goes dark.

This slamming of the door, which exists in Ibsen's original text - written over 130 years ago - echoes to this day, when ostensibly we have already been through the feminist revolution (without having internalized much from it ) and are dealing with a chauvinist counter-war, as much as when the play was written.

I am prepared to bet that even in 2012, there were, are and will be couples in the audience - in Be'er Sheva and throughout the country - whose marriages are one version or another of Helmer and Nora's marriage, in which the husband sees his wife as property, or a doll to play with (even if he does not admit this ), and she plays the game, getting whatever she can out of it.

However, that is not why this production - and the way it has been produced - is important. It is important because it contains a very significant statement to the effect that when it comes to this play - which is a masterpiece in addition to its social values - what is fundamental is not only to look for the psychological truth in it (which is something obvious, though not the only or the main thing ), but rather for the aesthetic form that will cause the spectator not only to experience the emotions but also to see the shaping of the production as a conscious work of art that does not make do with merely reproducing or imitating a reality, but rather creates a fascinating stage reality.

In this production, director Kfir Azoulay, set designer Eran Atzmon, Tamar Or (lighting ), Talia Beck (movement ) and Josef Bardanashvili (original music, which serves as the soundtrack for the entire production - as accompaniment, background and statement in its own right ) have created aesthetic perfection of this sort.

Around the perimeter of the playing space, there is always something going on: The actors are there throughout the action on stage, using the walls of the stage to create lighting effects, opening and closing, turning as required into black crows circling the stage. Sometimes the main action on stage is accompanied by an unclear murmur of voices, as though Nora is hearing it in her mind as the plot unfolds. Judging by this production, it seems we have a director emerging here who knows how to give a classical play's production an aesthetic and interesting stage treatment.

The plot, about a woman in a supposedly unforced but depressing and fundamentally distorting marriage, has lost none of its validity over the years. Of course, Bergman's 1981 adaptation makes it possible to sharpen the focus, and Azoulay's directing does so even more, when there is a pedophilic and brutal relationship at the basis of the marriage between Helmer and Nora (it seems as though, at any given moment on the stage, Helmer wants to dominate Nora's body in the guise of innocent play, and she cooperates with him a good part of the time ).

Here, too, the progress of Nora's self-liberation is evident as mischievous sexual play in the final scene, just before Nora's clarification and farewell conversation, which turns into something like rape before the eyes of the audience as Helmer, who wants to show his wife he has forgiven her for what he sees as a crime (and she sees as a sacrifice for his sake ), rips Nora's Italian dress off her and exposes her nakedness to the audience.

Bergman cut Ibsen's original and excised the characters of the servants; three children have become one child, who has quite an important role - she is the doll who will have to develop into a woman at the play's end. But what are her chances, left alone with a father whose wife has abandoned him - a replication of Nora's own childhood scene that caused her to grow up as a mechanical doll, to borrow an image from poet Dalia Ravikovitch?

Four characters surround Nora's world as she stands exposed on the stage. First, Dr. Rank, the faithful father figure and symbol of the corruption of the parent who destroys his children (the doctor is about to die due to a sexual disease inherited from his libertine father ): had he not loved and desired Nora, she would have been glad to accept help from him, but not when it is clear to her that this would in fact mean selling her body, and once again becoming a plaything in the hands of a man. Dr. Rank is a benevolent man whom Nora realizes can only do ill if she gives herself to him. Vladimir Friedman endows the character with juiciness and pain.

Zohar Strauss plays Krogstad, the usurer, whose fate rests on Helmer, and upon whom Nora is dependent. In one scene, when Nora plays Blindman's Buff with her daughter again, she falls into his arms and in the next scene they act like two wounded animals circling each other, each waiting for the other to attack. It is at least possible to interpret Ibsen's play as though Krogstad undergoes a transformation, and the love that Kristine Linde offers him suddenly causes him to return to the path of integrity and forego revenge on society, through Nora's misery. Not in Bergman's adaptation and Azoulay's direction: Krogstad's alliance with Linde, especially on her part, is a utilitarian alliance between two self-righteous people who are looking out for themselves.

Kristine Linde, a childhood friend of Nora's who has learned about life the hard way, is played by Michal Weinberg. The ascetic figure in black she creates combines, in correct measure, the precise outward shaping of the depths of the soul and persuasion, without a drop of exaggeration - and impressive maximal concentration.

Amir Krief - who in recent seasons at Be'er Sheva has played Dr. Stockmann (in Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," in an Israeli adaptation by Boaz Gaon ), the Count of Monte Cristo and Galileo (both under the direction of Ido Riklin ) - has already dealt with more significant challenges in three seasons there than during his entire 10 years at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater. Here he endows the character of Torvald Helmer with the right pomposity and self-satisfaction, without losing the ability to become vulnerable in the last scene and radiate moments of embarrassment and emotion, leaving a hope that the man is also capable of reinventing himself.

Finally we come to the person at the center of the stage throughout this whole evening, rightly and by right: Avital Pasternak is blessed with a quality I have not had the privilege of seeing in any other Nora. She has a natural childishness, an unforced innocence, and not for a moment does she send us - the audience - a message that she knows that by the end of the evening, the scales will drop from her eyes.

This enables us to experience along with her the sequence of revelations she goes through. When she discovers that after her heroic act in saving her husband's health, not only does it not earn his appreciation but also will cause him to see her as sillier than she is, the spectator learns, along with her, how to understand life anew and to realize that everything in life has to be paid for. Also that adult life is built on bilateral relations of give and take in which every debt - even in an accounting of the emotions - bears interest.

Something in the charm and vulnerability of the childishness in her makes her maturation more thrilling for the spectator (this spectator ), and it seems that here, Pasternak - who has quite a number of roles to her credit in Be'er Sheba, the Cameri, Habima and at Beit Lessin - has at long last been given a role and a framework that makes the most of all her abilities.

This production is additional evidence that, under the management of Shmuel Yifrach as executive-artistic director and Rafi Niv as artistic director, the Be'er Sheva theater is returning to its glory days, when it was managed by its founder Gary Bilu and his successor Tzipi Pines. After 17 years of unclear artistic wanderings, the theater is once again dealing with the nitty-gritty. Above all, with a respected and respectable repertoire able to present "middle of the road" productions with emotional-dramatic or comic impact ("Why Didn't You Come Before the War," "Play It Again, Sam," "All About Eve," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" or "Piaf" ), alongside a challenging classical and modern repertoire ("The Count of Monte Cristo," "Galileo," "Company," "Traitor" - despite the Israeli adaptation ) in professional and admirable productions.

The second important quality is a group of actors who have the opportunity here to play excellent roles more frequently and consistently than they could at any other theater in their careers thus far: Krief, Pasternak, Weinberg, and also Yonit Tobi, Rama Messinger, Shiri Golan and Yossi Tsabari. This is a troupe with a lot of young people, some of them graduates of a Be'er Sheva acting school funded by benefactor Larry Goodman and run by Shmuel Yifrach - which makes it possible to build a repertoire and get the most out of it. And there are also a number of directors at this theater who make the most of their talents: first of all, Ido Riklin and now Kfir Azoulay, who in this production has definitely aroused interest in seeing more of his work - particularly classical plays, if possible.

But above all there is respectable artistic and professional work, not over-reaching, but rather carefully and lovingly nurturing its small and important artistic flowerbed. The repertory and marketing system in Israel means that the Be'er Sheva Theater performs the best and most ambitious of its productions in its hall in Be'er Sheva, until it exhausts the potential of its audience of subscribers (about 13,000 of them - an impressive achievement in its own right ), and then the fate of the productions, even the best of them, is unpredictable. They are dependent on buyers from around the country and on a very limited supply of halls in Tel Aviv.

Therefore my advice to you is this: "Nora" will be on at the Center for the Performing Arts in Be'er Sheva several more times during the month of June. It is worth your while to make the effort to get there. You don't see productions of this quality every day in Tel Aviv.