Playing Dress-Up with 'A Doll's House'

The production opens this week with rich costuming 

Jenny Madorsky as
Jenny Madorsky as "Nora" in "A Doll's House."

Puffy sleeves with a sheer fishnet pattern cover Duke senior Jenny Madorsky's shoulders. A black corset purchased from a lingerie boutique catches the light. She grabs the ribbon-clad skirt of her dress, providing a glimpse of her knees. She dances fiercely, a look of intensity grips her face. 

Madorsky plays Nora, the lead character from playwright Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House." Duke's Department of Theater Studies is producing the play which opens this week, running at 8 p.m. Nov. 10-12 and 17-19 at the Bryan Center's Sheafer Theater on Duke's West Campus. The play will also run at 2 p.m. on Nov. 13 and 20. For tickets, visit or call (919) 684-4444.

Often heralded as the "father of modern Western drama," Ibsen was considered a revolutionary for creating the controversial character of Nora, a strong feminist, in a play about the sexual repression of a 1880s housewife who struggles with the gender constraints of the time period. 

The play features original music by Allison Leyton-Brown, played by a four-piece ensemble, creative use of video by Jim Haverkamp and set design by Torry Bend, a theater studies professor.

"The characters themselves have a physicality that is not the physicality of the actor," said  the play's director, Ellen Hemphill. "They have different manners. Their whole being is different."

The play's costumes were key to this change, shedding light on the oppressive nature of the era, Hemphill said. Described as a "Neapolitan fisher girl dress," Madorsky's outfit is an Italian garment purchased as a souvenir by Nora's husband. Another dress, a floor-length gown that took 10 people five weeks to create, has a more serious look. The collar itself was designed to look as though "her head is on a platter."

Both were designed by the play's costume designer, Bill Clarke, who has worked on sets from Moscow to New York City as a freelance designer. 

He says there's a certain pizzazz to costume design which he thrives on.

"I've always thought costume design was slightly like acting," Clarke said. "You investigate the characters from a psychological view point. You have to see the world through their eyes. It's really about delving into the psychology of the characters. What is their world? What kind of people are they? How do they fit in? What do you want to illustrate?"

Clarke read the play and then discussed it with Hemphill, an associate professor of the practice in Duke's Theater Studies department. The two met over the summer through mutual friends, and instantly hit it off. 

Clarke begins his work by making renderings, or rough interpretation of costumes based on what the director wants. But the drawings don't just come out of thin air, he said. Clarke ventured into libraries and special collections to pinpoint fashion from the time period, the late 1800s. One influence was burlesque from the early 20th century.

Clarke stays away from strictly period pieces, choosing to dive into contemporary influence, creating clothing that the audience can identify with.

"Whatever you're seeing on stage is not actually happening in 1880, but it's happening right now," he said. "It's present-day action. You as a designer can make your link to the historical people from centuries ago to flesh and blood in the audience."

Working remotely on Duke's production of "The Dollhouse," Clarke has only been to Durham three times during the process. On his last trip he solicited feedback on his designs from the actors.

A doll's house
Nora's 'tarantella' costume, designed by Bill Clarke.

"When I have first fittings with the actors, I find it really important to let them know what I think about the character, and to see if they agree with my thoughts on their character," he said. "We're almost always in agreement, but some actors are very opinionated and have ideas of their own."

The most moving moments for Clarke are when an actor becomes the character while in the costume.

"The best compliment is 'Oh, now I really feel like the character,'" he said. "The costume empowers them to behave a certain way."

Clarke advised the students on details such as whether a neckline should go down to the navel, or a cuff should keep a certain shape, or if a hat looked like a bird sitting atop the actor's head. 

The costume shop workers bought fabric based on Clarke's sketches. They made patterns for the pieces, sewed them and made the necessary alterations for each actor.

The theater's costume shop, located in the depths of the Bryan Center, is a room filled ceiling-high with rolls of fabrics and colorful pieces of thread strewn across the floor. Open-toed shoes are not allowed in the costume shop to avoid incidents with needles and hot glue guns. Students giggle and concentrate at the same time, whip stitching intricate gowns like they've been doing it for years. Costume shop manager Kay Webb tried on Nora's tiny top hat from the play.

There's certainly a finesse to making costumes, Webb said. "It's knowing when to throw the shirt out and when to keep it."