ZELDA FICHANDLER, the founding mother of the Tony Award-winning Arena Stage, could direct her way out of a steamer trunk 20,000 leagues under the sea. As the director/producing director of Arena, Mrs. Fichandler has directed more than 50 plays herself, including such challenging classics as Arthur Miller's ``The Crucible,'' Luigi Pirandello's ``Six Characters in Search of An Author,'' and Chekhov's ``The Seagull.'' Her productions have toured from Hong Kong to Israel. Now she's taken on Henrik Ibsen, and the teacups are shattering in ``A Doll House,'' which runs through April 8 at Arena.
Fichandler sits at a table in her theater office and shares some of her directing secrets. Traditionally, productions of ``A Doll House'' end with Nora Helmer, wife and mother, slamming the door on her 19th-century Norwegian marriage to her feckless husband, Torvald, to find herself. That slammed door has been like a shot heard round the world, particularly since the rise of feminism in the late 1960s. The slammed door is a given, like Desdamona's handkerchief in ``Othello.'' But Fichandler doesn't let Nora slam the door in her production. She opens the doors - all of them.
``It never occured to me in reading the play today that she would slam the door,'' says Fichandler, ``because we're in a period of late feminism, where we're beginning to ask ourselves, `Well, we've slammed the door, in a way, and now what happens?'''
She says she took her symbolic cue from Ibsen: ``I started with doors ... and what it means to go through a door. We do it in the Arena by [Nora] walking around the outer [stage] space and opening those four doors, as the motion accelerates.'' And the doors stay open for several moments, like a long dissolve on film. Fichandler says she thinks cinematically about her plays and that this ``I am a camera'' approach frees her imagination.
``In the play, they've betrayed the unspoken covenant of marriage, which is: I'll be your doll wife and be your doll mate, and you will be my fairy-tale prince and rescue me and keep me safe. And as soon as the rules change ..., the marriage falls apart.''
In Fischandler's brilliant production, the audience, which sits around the rectangular stage, looks down on the Helmers' home, as though the top of a doll house had been lifted off. We peer in, intimately involved with this family whose secrets open like gifts before our eyes. It is poignant, compelling theater.
The cozy Victorian room, with its Christmas tree, toys, and dolls, the giant Christmas ornaments which hang above it in the air like symbols of foreboding, the beguiling children Nora leaves are all part of this director's attention to carefully setting the stage for what happens. ``She rips herself out of this wonderful nest at this wonderful holiday season,'' says Fichandler, ``and goes toward this half-perceived notion of living with integrity....''
Fichandler is a dramatic-looking woman, who sometimes upstages the play we're talking about. She has sleekly coiffed black hair, dark brown eyes that flash and snap. Her voice is throaty, a storyteller's voice, with a slight purr in it. She is talking now about how she tackles a play:
``I never know a play. If I read it now, and then again in five years, it's another play. ... I want to be uninterrupted at this first reading. I don't read it line by line. I try to read it as if it's an event, which it really is. ... And then in the next six readings, I just try to breathe with it and try to find out what the motion in the play is, the psychological motion ..., what's happening among people.''
AFTER having read ``A Doll House'' a dozen times just for this production and seeing it a half dozen times, she concludes, ``I've found out that the main event was that Nora peels away layers of herself and finds out something that she didn't know was there ..., which is really the lie of her life - the `life-lie' Ibsen calls it. And then, in the process of knowing, finding out, everything explodes. So it's really Greek in that sense; it's `The Fall of the House of Helmer.'''
Many directors describe their jobs as being captain of the ship, general, mother or father, even chef. For Fichandler, though, the director is a tour guide: ``I feel as though we're going on a journey together, and that I've picked the destination. And I think we're going to land there but am not absolutely positive. I think we're going to go along this route that I have blocked out here. But I also need a lot of input ... so we can adjust our goals and maybe decide to stay overnight in this port or that, or maybe by-pass that island I thought we were going to.''
Her technique for directing includes total submersion in research, total saturation about the period and place of the play, before she makes a single decision on how to stage it. `I don't feel comfortable going into a rehearsal unless I know how they walked, talked, sat, ate, saved their money, what God they worshipped, what kind of ground they walked on, what kind of ideas were in the air, how long they lived.''
She told the designers for ``A Doll House'' to select the objects on stage as carefully as anything for their own homes because, like theirs, the Helmer home ``has a history.'' Later she adds, ``When we go to the theater, we're usually short-changed. Theater work should be denser and more complex and more data-stuffed [with] information about living. The data is often very thinned out and not half as rich as life. So people don't go....''
She points out that a director has to make theater more real than life. ``But anything that's sort of timid and half-expressed - well, you might as well be just living life. And in the theater everything ... needs to be bolder, clearer, more extreme, more selective, more outrageous, more demonstrative, more specific, more to the point of what you're showing, less random, more explored, more heightened.''
She adds that the words ``heighten'' and ``explore'' are key words in her teaching of acting and directing at New York University, where she has chaired the theater department. She gave that up because of the demands of her schedule, and is now artistic director of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.