Washington Ensemble Theatre closes its 2016/17 season with the best idea it's had in recent memory. Cherdonna's Doll's House, which opens April 28 and runs through May 15, combines two giants of the stage. One giant is A Doll's House, Norwegian play-factory Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece.
Theater 101 professors always present this classic as the exemplar of the realist "well-made play." Before the students inclined to snub the Western canon can tap out their first angry tweet, the professor reminds the class that A Doll's House is a FEMINIST play about a WOMAN (Nora) who single-handedly keeps an entire household together and yet decides to leave her husband (Torvald, that infantilizing bastard) and children at the end. Why? Because you'll have to read the play to find out, that's why.
The other giant is Stranger Genius Award winner Cherdonna Shinatra, a childlike clownsplosion who simultaneously parodies high femme expression and luxuriates in its trappings.
I don't know why, exactly, this combo sounds so promising. Maybe it's the fact that Cherdonna's aesthetic perfectly exaggerates Nora's ebullient personality and buttoned-up veneer. Maybe it's the fact that WET's so-called "Breakdown" season thus far has been, both onstage and backstage, consciously feminist in its concerns, and so I'm excited to see what happens when a feminist performance artist trolls a feminist play.
With these half-formed thoughts buzzing around my brain, I recently observed a rehearsal of Cherdonna's Doll's House and spoke to Jody Kuehner, the artist beneath the clown-white mask.
When I walked into the dusty little studio inside the Armory, I saw Kuehner sans glitter sitting in a chair with Cherdonna's trademark horror-smile plastered across her face. As she watched Leah Salcido Pfenning twirl and charm and dazzle as Nora, Kuehner slid out of her chair like an ooze and began crawling toward the stage.
She interrupted Brace Evans, who plays the undersung character Dr. Rank, by calling out his name and telling him how glad she was to be his friend. As the actors tried to proceed with the scene, she inserted herself into their dialogue. She asked almost all the actors how they liked being in the play, and each one of them replied with some variation of "I love the opportunity to do this classic, feminist play." Like the id of a critic let loose on the stage, Kuehner began to reveal all the ideas the play conceals beneath its story. At one point, she literally started opening presents from beneath the Christmas tree and offering the cookies inside to invisible audience members.
Over tea the following week, Kuehner said that she and director Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir changed all of that. It wasn't working. Too many interruptions too quickly. The audience needed to feel invested in Nora's story before Cherdonna completely invaded their world.
She and el-Gasseir have been working over Ibsen's script for the last year and a half. They cut the script down and dreamed up jokey interruptions, but she said the last month has been trial and error. This means that the rehearsal process has also been the writing process, which is a bold way to work. El-Gasseir and Kuehner have made huge changes to the cast's relationship to Cherdonna—two weeks before the show opens—and the cast has just had to react. Luckily, everyone's sensibilities align. They're not precious with the work, and the actors have been open to changes.
Unless they've made changes since last week, in the fully staged production, Cherdonna will sit in a gaudy throne opposite the stage and flanked by the audience. Sort of like a Mystery Science Theater 3000 setup. She'll interact abstractly with the cast at first, but then get more aggressive as the play goes on.
In the beginning, the cast will be excited about their new friend. As the interruptions increase, Nora will spearhead an anti-Cherdonna rebellion. Putting the "real" back in "realism," the cast will read quotes, Kuehner said, from all of Cherdonna's bad reviews. In this way, the cast of Ibsen's play will get to troll their troller. While all of this meta stuff is going on, the actors will still be trying to act their way through a full performance of the play.
The ending was still up in the air as of two weeks ago, but I wouldn't tell you even if I knew. You'll have to find out for yourself if this classic holds up to Cherdonna's scrutiny. I have a hunch you won't be disappointed either way.