Toying With Ibsen
By Martin Puchner
Mabou Mines Dollhouse
Adapted from Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House
St. Ann's Warehouse
38 Water St. (Brooklyn)
Box office: (718) 254-8779
Early on in the first scene, Nora seizes
the blond hair of a doll, made up to look like herself, and rips
open its head. It is a sudden gesture that encapsulates all the
violence with which dolls are treated by children; Freud had been
fascinated with our desire to saw open dolls in order to look
for their souls. In this case, what Nora finds inside the skull
is a macaroon, which she keeps hidden in willful defiance of her
husband's tyrannical rule. But this moment can also serve as an
allegory for Mabou Mines's eerie production of Ibsen's A Doll's
House, which saws open the play with the same systematic
insistence, determined to investigate each of its components in
search of its soul, and hoping to find a living principle behind
the old, stuffy shell of Ibsen's preachiest play.
For Freud, looking for life inside puppets
triggered the effect of the uncanny, an effect produced by the
conflation of the living and the dead. Uncanny is also a good
description of Dollhouse (as Mabou Mines renames it).
In a remarkable performance by Maud Mitchell, the dolled-up Nora
moves and speaks like a manic puppet, her fast-talking baby voice
amplified by an extraordinary sound system and design. The entire
production takes place on a miniature set, with toy chairs, toy
beds, toy doors, toy pianos, toy everything, forcing the life-sized
actors into the world of dead and animated puppets. An army of
dolls is employed to reanimate this overly familiar play and in
the process make it seem strange and unfamiliar.
The soul of the play, director Lee Breuer
suggests, is size. The most notorious element of this production
is that all the male characters are played by actors who are approximately
four feet tall. On the face of it, this might seem like a gimmick,
reversing the conceit of a play in which the men treat the women
like dolls. Breuer has been known for high-concept reversals:
for example, his gender-reverse casting of the title role in Lear
(1990). But the casting in Dollhouse is but one component
of an elaborate scheme through which the production targets Ibsen's
obsession with size.
The three small men cut the towering women
down to size without difficulty. Torvald (Mark Povinelli) is deliciously
pompous and self-satisfied, clearly more at home in the miniature
set than his wife, whom he manipulates like a large puppet. It
is during the second act, after having belittled her through endless
diminutives, that his status begins to shrink: Nora accuses him
of being "petty" and "small"--the word hangs in the air in a moment
of breathtaking silence. The other two men are similarly commanding.
Dr. Ranke (Ricardo Gil), made up to look like Ibsen, is wonderfully
smug and self-pitying, while Krogstadt is a perfectly slimy lawyer
who has Nora firmly in his grip. Against the three of them, the
two female characters have no chance; only the particularly large
and voluminous servant (Lisa Harris, now 8 months pregnant), who
has to bear the entire burden of labor, manages to resist their
regime through obstinacy and defiance.
In the end, everything and everyone becomes
a doll. The large female characters are dolls to the small men.
At one point, Torvald flies through the air carried by a stage
hand as if he were a puppet. Nora carries her own Nora doll. Her
two children are made up to resemble dolls and are treated like
them as well. The final scene features a whole array of mechanically
moving puppets. The Mabou Mines company are experts at playing
with toys, most recently in their imaginative Peter and Wendy.
Dollhouse is a Peter Pan for adults, demonstrating
the disturbing consequences of adults' desire to become or remain
children. The only people who seem out of place in this uncanny
toy-world are the child actors, not because they aren't good but
because they belong to the toy world. They are its natural inhabitants
and therefore cannot contribute to the terror that results when
adults, no matter what size, start playing at dolls.
In putting the doll back into Doll's
House, Breuer undertakes a literal reading of the play. One
might say that the entire production is a kind of slowed-down
close reading that takes over three hours. This slow tempo and
the meticulous literalness bring to light many other features
that are usually pushed into the background. The program notes
announce that the production wants to turn a 19th-century bourgeois
tragedy into a feminist comedy. What actually happens is infinitely
more interesting. Through his leisurely lingering over every word,
every scene, every situation, Breuer shows that what is generally
believed to be a modern drama is in fact a nineteenth-century
melodrama held together by a rather mechanical plot.
The long speeches of various characters,
stuffed with worn-out clichés and grandiose rhetoric, are turned
into songs or accompanied by a musical score. There is no better
way of showing Dr. Ranke's immense self-pity, as he histrionically
bemoans the injustice of his fate (he has to suffer for his father's
excess). The music also underscores Krogstadt's sleaze, as he
manipulates his victims like a typical 19th-century melodramatic
lawyer-villain; his final redemption through love merely replaces
one cliché with another. But even while this production critiques
Ibsen's over-blown grandiosity, it doesn't simply make fun of
him either. It rather gets under the skin of the play and exposes
its inner mechanisms.
It exposes them, but it messes with them
as well by turning the play into an increasingly extreme and disturbing
spectacle. The second act opens with a dream sequence riffing
on The Shining (think "redrum"), and the rehearsal of
the tarantella dance becomes a strobe-lit bacchanalia, fantastically
choreographed by Martha Clarke. As the play edges towards its
climax, melodrama and open sexuality become increasingly intertwined,
for example in the reconciliation scene between Krogstadt and
Kristine, in which Krogstadt mimes the romantic lover with violin
in hand while receiving a blowjob as a kind of counter point.
The sexual underpinnings of the melodrama find their climax in
Torvald's last, most pretentious speech, in which he pompously
forgives Nora for her heroic (if perhaps misguided) sacrifice.
Lying alone in bed, Torvald is turned on by his own generosity--with
the desired results.
As things increasingly spin out of control,
one wonders how the production is going to pull off the famous
ending, which made Shaw coin the term "discussion play." In the
original, instead of accepting Torvald's patronizing forgiveness,
Nora delivers a feminist manifesto against the patriarchy, and,
slamming the door, leaves the house and her role as a doll. One
difficulty in this ending is that the play's tone, and the character
of Nora, shift abruptly, without preparation or motivation. At
the same time, this very abruptness was seen as an important break
with traditional drama and thus the beginning of something called
modernism. Breuer solves the problem of the ending brilliantly
in his own way, shifting the register from melodrama to opera.
The dollhouse stage is transformed into an opera house, with puppet
couples occupying several rows of boxes in the back. Nora herself--the
actress--is revealed in one of them, singing her final cry of
liberation as a full-blown aria. Her costume is different as well.
Instead of the dark-blue doll's dress, she wears a classical,
white robe with a long gauze stole draped around her shoulders.
Torvald, snoring after his climactic speech,
slowly begins to realize that something is amiss and joins his
wife with desperate objections and pleas, all sung in high operatic
mode as well. Even as the production slyly turns the once provocative
discussion of the play into a duet, it does not completely take
away the feminist edge that so outraged Ibsen's contemporaries.
During her last aria, Nora takes off what turns out to be a wig,
revealing a shaved head. The play thus ends on a double note:
high opera and radical chic--an ending that captures the double
gesture at work throughout this production. The play is taken
apart and put together again in a way that recreates, differently,
its original impulse.
There is a final moment in which the daughter,
once more dressed up as Nora but equipped with a toy sword, delivers
the last line, leaving us with the sense that the next generation
of Noras will not be content with abandoning their dollhouses.
They will return as avenging angels, breaking toys, husbands,
and opera houses apart.