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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.