In the doll house

Philly Fringe 2019: MACHO GOAT presents A Literal Doll House’

2 minute read
Nineteenth-century psychological drama…with dolls. Arielle Silk in ‘A Literal Doll House.’ (Photo by Michelle Nugent.)
Nineteenth-century psychological drama…with dolls. Arielle Silk in ‘A Literal Doll House.’ (Photo by Michelle Nugent.)

A Literal Doll House is a new twist on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, developed by MACHO GOAT for this year’s Fringe. At the center of Harrison Stengele’s adaptation is performer Arielle Silk, portraying the five main characters—Nora Helmer, her husband Torvald, their neighbor Dr. Rank, Krogstad, and Nora’s childhood friend Kristine—as porcelain dolls maneuvering around the titular set piece.

Hello, Helmers

A Literal Doll House preserves the story of Nora, a seemingly flighty housewife whose apparently sunny disposition and childlike glee belies a cunning mind. In Nora’s late-19th-century Norway, where women cannot secure money or property under their own name, she has resorted to forgery to secure a loan to save her husband’s life when he was ill.

Virtually no one in Nora’s life takes her seriously—her husband remains blissfully unaware of his wife’s deception and views her as little more than a plaything; her childhood friend sees her as a sheltered coquette. But into the den of her domestic bliss crashes Krogstad, the man who holds her debt and threatens to expose her. Only he can see through Nora’s cheery façade to the shrewd woman beneath.

In an unusual portrayal of a now-familiar story, Silk gives a fluid and captivating performance, imbuing each doll with a distinct voice, personality, and purpose, changing the mood of every scene with a twist of her mouth or quirk of her eyebrow. She’s dressed to match her porcelain counterparts, in pigtails and a peach pinafore, looking for all the world like a Victorian child at play. Silk’s co-star, Tim Irvine, intercuts her playtime with a silent, ominous presence.

The reckoning

A Literal Doll House is an almost word-for-word reproduction of Ibsen’s original script, save for the fact that all scenes not featuring Nora have been excised, which becomes notable in the final scene. When the Helmers must finally come to a reckoning in their marriage, the playtime pretense is stripped away. Irvine becomes Torvald himself, by turns a patronizing and pathetic creature. Silk abandons her doll guise and fully embodies Nora in the play’s most emotional scene, retroactively turning the onstage doll house into a traumatized Nora’s therapeutic attempt to make sense of her blackmail, and the dissolution of her marriage. The tension as the two confront each other cuts to the quick of the audience.

Gone is the happy, brilliant bride, and with her the benevolently sexist, of-his-time husband. In their place are a woman made of steely resolve and a man broken to his core. But at least one of them has hope for a redemptive future.

The only quibble with this production is that the venue isn’t wheelchair-accessible. Such a fantastic Doll’s House analysis deserves the widest possible audience, and maybe accessibility could have been considered as much as the aesthetic.

What, When, Where

A Literal Doll House. Based on A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Harrison Stengele. Through September 22, 2019 at a private Philadelphia residence. (215) 413-1318 or

This venue has limited accessibility and the production employs flashing lights.

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