Okieriete Onaodowan

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Live from New York: Okieriete Onaodowan

There have been numerous turntables scattered across Broadway stages over the past few years, but few spin with the sense of purpose of the one recently installed at the Hudson Theatre. Twenty minutes before each performance of Amy Herzog's new adaptation of Ibsen's landmark A Doll's House, Jessica Chastain drags a chair onto the otherwise bare set and takes a seat, staring imperturbably at the audience as she slowly rotates around and around. That revolve serves to set the scene over the course of Jamie Lloyd's bracingly intimate production, trimmed down to under two hours without intermission, played on an empty stage in sparse modern dress, with mics that amplify every ragged breath. For Okieriete Onaodowan, a veteran of Broadway hits like Hamilton and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 here playing Nils Krogstad, whose threat of blackmail against Chastain's Nora drives the plot, it was this unmediated vision that drew him to the project. "I've known Jamie Lloyd for a long time and I saw his production of Cyrano and I very much loved the minimalist aspect of it, stripping everything down," he says. "You don't really see that on Broadway. I told him, 'This is what I'm hungry for and dying for. I would love to bring this to the Broadway arena.'"

A Doll's House is considered a touchstone of modern drama, offering a nuanced and ambiguous look at the complex relationships between Nora, her husband Torvald, and Krogstad (who also happens to be Torvald's employee) that defies easy resolution. In what many have described as a proto-feminist decision, Nora famously walks out on her family at the end rather than submit to the circumstances in which she finds herself, which caused considerable controversy at the play's premiere in 1879. Krogstad is often understood to be the antagonist, but Onaodowan says it was important to capture in a similar way the duress he is under, trapped without options other than to use his knowledge of a long-ago crime of forgery committed by Nora to leverage a promotion from her husband. "I was so moved by this character who doesn't seem volatile, doesn't seem overly aggressive. He seemed like someone who's really trying to communicate something and be heard, which obviously I can relate to in life," the actor explains. "I wanted him to really be trying not to do this until the bitter end. I wanted that to resonate with people that this man is just trying to get back on his feet and look out for his family in a way he hasn't been able to for a long time."

Despite the play's renowned history, Onaodowan came to the show with fresh eyes, having never seen a previous production and barely remembering reading it in high school. While still set in the late nineteenth century, this sharply contemporary take, shorn of the layers of period detail, serves to highlight its continuing relevance today as an exploration of the complexity of human nature. "Stripping things back allows you to really listen intently in a way that you may not have listened before," Onaodowan says. And that turntable, he adds, only serves to magnify the drama. "Physically, we're very specifically placed in places and not having that physical freedom to live is what was the most challenging thing. I think that adds to the tension because we are all locked in, we're all physically confined in a way, which is the overarching metaphor of the piece," he explains. "Hopefully, it's a moment of looking at human beings and not seeing anyone as malicious or vindictive, but everyone just really trying their best to ground themselves."

A Doll's House continues through June 10 at the Hudson Theatre, New York. Read this story and many more in print by ordering our sixth issue here.

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As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.