Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Cherdonna Plays House Until She Doesn't - And It's Kinda Great

Cherdonna's Doll's House (Jeff Carpenter)
Cherdonna’s Doll’s House
Washington Ensemble Theatre
Through May 15, 2017

Cherdonna Shinatra is a unique presence on the Seattle arts scene. She is the creation of performer Jody Kuehner who was awarded one of The Stranger’s Genius Awards in 2015. She might be described as a clown dancer. Her lithe body is ready to contort into many a dance move as her performance entity enlarges and amplifies her feelings.

She has teamed up with Washington Ensemble Theatre and Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir to create a unique experience of the Henrik Ibsen play, A Doll’s House. There are so many aspects of this evening that are intriguing and beguiling, at least from the beginning on toward the end.

Cherdonna begins by introducing us to what apparently is one of her favorite theater pieces, A Doll’s House. She talks to the audience members and shows us parts of the set and a great big pink chair that is quite apparently “hers.” She doesn’t really tell us why this piece is so important to her, but we just accept that it clearly is.

In a way, it’s like a doll’s house that Cherdonna is playing with – and that is likely a large part of the intent of combining these two entities together. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is considered one of the most famous early feminist plays, even if Ibsen himself did not necessary consider himself a feminist.

The character Nora Helmer has done something considered illegal and quite scandalous in her time: in order to help her husband during a time of great illness, she takes out a bank loan fraudulently, which works to help him back to health. However, she could not tell him that truth. The threat of that action becoming known might undo everything in her life – her marriage, her standing in society, her ability to parent her children.

As the action of the play progresses, she realizes that she has been treated as a doll, from the time growing up in her father’s home through her entire marriage. She’s also participated in her own infantilization and treated parenting as if her children and her life were playing in a doll’s house. She determines that she cannot stay in this doll house if she wants to become her real adult self, and must leave.

In this iteration, the full cast of the  Ibsen play is present and whole segments of the actual script are fitfully performed until or unless Cherdonna interferes either because she’s so enthusiastic or she wants something else to happen. Some of that interruption is very, very funny.

It would be unfair to describe a lot of what Cherdonna does because a) it might be somewhat improvisational and depend on the night, and b) it is so much more fun to experience it for yourself without any spoilers.

Leah Salcido Pfenning as Nora and Samie Spring Detzer as Mrs. Linde interact with Cherdonna the most. Nora gets the most annoyed and Mrs. Linde finds her hysterically funny. The other characters fall somewhere in the range. Sally Brady as the Nanny gets a lot of deadpan reaction time to good effect.

The event – it’s hard to call it a play because it’s more of a deconstruction of one than one itself – falls apart when it tries to present the serious apex of the Ibsen play straight through. Cherdonna has had her feelings hurt and she leaves and the play is allowed to continue without the interruptions.

Unfortunately, it does not work to try to stick a serious ending on to the deconstructed and very funny first 3/4s as if to make a “real” point. The actors try to present the play truthfully, but it simply isn’t the time for it. It might be that somehow Cherdonna is trying to find her “real” self, too, but that conceptual “device” falls flat here.

By the end, it feels like an experiment gone wrong. However, the first 3/4s are so much fun that I really heartily recommend you see it. Because that part really is genius, and if you don’t go, you’ll miss that. Creators el-Gasseir/Kuehner should never have allowed Cherdonna to leave the stage.

For more information, go to www.washingtonensemble.org