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Nov 032011
 

It may or not be a coincidence, but this imbalance of power resonates with the current economic phenomena in America of the 1% ruling the 99%. Entertaining and provocative, this quick-witted and dreamlike evening of theater suggests that imbalances of power sacrifice individual freedoms and love. Everyone becomes a doll (master and servant) in a doll society.

Mabou Mines DollHouse. Adapted from A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. Conceived and directed by Lee Breuer. Original music & a collage of Edvard Grieg’s piano works assembled by Eve Beglarian. At the Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, MA, through November 6.

By Erica H. Adams.

DOLLHOUSE: Nora pleads with Torvald. Photo: Richard Termine.

Kinetic, raucous, and hyperactive, the Boston premiere of DollHouse by the experimental ensemble Mabou Mines’ blows up Henrik Ibsen’s spare, polemical A Doll’s House (1879) with exhilarating, hallucinatory abandon. Ibsen’s play was less about 19th-century marriage norms and feminism than the assertion of individual rights. However, MacArthur Prize-winning director Lee Breuer turns DollHouse into a farcical exploration of the imbalance of power in a critique of patriarchy that plays with exaggerated perceptions of scale. Visually, Breuer makes his point by casting nearly six foot tall women who are manipulated by small men, their height about four feet tall. The latter were convincingly played by Kristopher Medina as Torvald Helmer, Nic Novicki as Nils Krogstad, and Joey Gnoffo as Dr. Rank.

Through their commanding gestures, the small men grew or shrunk in stature on stage—sometimes rising and falling at the same time, surely Breuer’s intent, given that the the women are often on their knees. The idea to cast “little people” as a way to undermine the illusion of authority occurred to director Lee Breuer (74) decades after he saw this ploy in Bertholt Brecht’s comic adaptation Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.

Breuer said of DollHouse that “It’s virtually a cartoon. And yet, at the same time, it’s tragic because it [masculine domineering] works.” Inequality is visible in many details. After Nora leaves her husband, she stands in a box seat above the stage, her frontal nudity soaring above Torvald, who is lying on top of their bed. His is power hidden, while hers is stripped bare, faux-heroic, his and her lines turned into an opera—it is a brilliant way to handle the now dated climax of the play.

It may or not be a coincidence, but this imbalance of power resonates with the current economic phenomena in America of the 1% ruling the 99%. Entertaining and provocative, this quick-witted and dreamlike evening of theater makes a serious point—imbalances of power sacrifice individual freedoms and love because everyone becomes a doll (master and servant) in a doll society.

DOLLHOUSE — It is all a matter of size. Photo: Richard Termine

Maude Mitchell masterfully plays Torvald’s doll-like wife Nora with crazed perfection. Nora’s shrill, relentless hysteria is quietly ignited by the lyrical gravity of Edvard Grieg’s piano works assembled by Eve Beglarian. Puppetry in this lampoonish, overturned melodrama serves as a kind of shadow world that, in the second half, holds a mirror up to the audience. The play within a play suggests that we are the real puppets.

The stage set’s Gustavian rococo reflects Nora’s excessive temperament, ablaze in her hot house, miniaturized cocoon. The scale is suited to the small men who dominate her. Nora is kept on her knees, literally, frantic to conform, against ludicrous odds that finally awaken her to the fact that she is simply going to have to go out and create a home for herself—it is no place for a human being.

Thus this excessive romp also presents a stinging indictment of the ways we objectify each other today. In the end, both the powerful and powerless lose. This run will conclude the nine year, international run of DollHouse. If you are interested in an adventurous theatrical experience—imaginative, political, exhilarating, and challenging, take in this production by one of America’s leading experimental directors and writers.

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  5 Responses to “Fuse Theater Review: Ibsen’s DollHouse — Deconstructed”

Comments (5)
  1. I took in the production when it was at Yale Rep in New Haven, CT in 2006 and saw it again last night. I was with the five sections of Theater Now that I teach at Boston University (I teach one section, there are 100 students, 5 sections in all). This is an innovative class that I must write about sometime, a reinvention of the writing class that promises to become a vital part of BU’s commitment to the arts. It may also serve as a model for similar experiments around the country.

    Anyway, I didn’t feel comfortable reviewing the production because of that — also, Lee Breuer generously consented to talk to the BU students in class after they saw the show. But I want to comment that this a distinctive theatrical experience — excessive, unruly, and fascinating. It is polemical/anti-polemical extravaganza — Breuer is a bit hard on Ibsen, but overall the production serves what I believe to be the anarchistic spirit of the playwright. It should be seen … and duplicated. Anyone for taking George Bernard Shaw apart?

  2. My wife and I saw half the play last (Saturday) night. We walked out at intermission. Before we left the theater, my wife went to the Ladies’ room where she heard other women saying how awful it was. While we discussed the play early this morning, my wife quoted a college girl asking in bewilderment “What am I supposed to do with this?”

    I laughed and predicted at least one Boston critic would not give the production a negative review, but would state how it is bizarre and avante-guarde.

    I’m wrong. I have found two positive reviews. I looked at the Herald earlier and saw that Jenna Scherer gave this production an enthusiastically positive review.

    It bothers me how reviewers who love these productions don’t focus on the acting, direction, lighting, or even the story. Instead, they focus on the “deconstruction” or the “innovation.” The reviewer implies — if you don’t like it, you don’t get it. If you don’t get it, you don’t understand theater.

    Look at the comment above by Bill Marx. Note how he informs us how he teaches theater and actually compliments and advertises himself. Thus implying he KNOWS theater. Who are we pedestrians to disagree?

    I wish someone would pull these theater gods down to earth and remind them that a gimmick, no matter how well executed, is still a gimmick. The story and acting are what ultimately matter.

    Remember the two-person production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the ART a few years ago? It was fun. The two guys did a fine job, but it was still a gimmick.

    If you are so bored of Ibsen, Shakespeare, and Wilde that it takes gimmicks for you to enjoy them, it’s time to find another occupation.

  3. I don’t teach theater—I have a class where I take writing students to see plays in the Boston area. I have them talk to directors and actors, and then write essays on the texts and productions. The class was pretty mixed about DollHouse—some really liked it, some hated it.

    What’s important is that the production generated a terrific discussion about the play that went places that seeing a conventional staging would not have gone. Later this week, we will show the students a very traditional film version, starring Claire Bloom and Anthony Hopkins. They are free to make their up their own minds about the play and adaptations. I enjoy the film (beautifully acted) and DollHouse.

    You are mistaken to imply that I suggested that if anyone didn’t like DollHouse that he or she doesn’t understand theater. This was not a conventional production as Ibsen would have envisioned it—it is up to the viewer to decide if the trade-off is worthwhile. For some it is . . . for others it is not. People have different ideas about the boundaries of theater—no one is wrong or right, as if it is an exam. Don’t believe those you (or others) designate to be “theater gods”—if what you read in advance about a production suggests it takes enormous liberties with the text don’t buy a ticket.

    I would agree that the critics who liked the production did not do a good job of explaining what Breuer was up to . . . talking about the tradition of theater (more European than American) that the director is drawing on. I think it is much more than a gimmick, but a reviewer could leave the reader with that impression if the notice tosses around adjectives rather than reasons for his or her admiration. A critic should try to persuade someone of what he or she values—the effort may not succeed, but it is worth doing. I agree that acting, direction, lighting, and story are important parts of theater—I would add that for me there is also the freedom of the restless theatrical imagination to bend, twist, and reinvent those elements. Time does not stand still. When A Doll’s House premiered over a hundred years ago, some audience members in Europe and America walked out, scandalized that Nora left her husband and children. The ending is far less galvanic today.

    Rest assured, there are and will be plenty of conventional productions of A Doll’s House produced—for every Lee Breuer there are dozens of straight-shooting directors. I was just up at Bowdoin College, and it looked as if the script was going to be staged in a much less frisky way there.

  4. Mr. Marx,

    I admit I don’t write impartial comments.
    You could have replied in a “terrific” fashion (as many do these days), and chose to write a thoughtful and educating answer.

    I really liked your thoughtful reply and I thank you for it.

    BTW, as one who wrote his way from from Freshman English to Advanced Composition several decades ago, I wish you well with your students. You and I are the type who realize the pen can be mightier than the sword.

  5. Briefly, as the writer of this review: I read everything Ibsen wrote many years ago. A Doll’s House cut a lasting impression. I alluded to that while focused on Lee Breuer’s production. Gimmicks are obvious — more interesting is to understand how they function, what they adds to the discourse about the play. Every work is filtered through the lens of the era and character of those who re/view it. If the work survives history, successive productions create another commentary of and across time. And, what this reveals and how it expands upon the original, for me, is what’s most interesting. Why repeat or finesse what’s already been done? Rather than present a case like a lawyer, I prefer to simply state my re/view and leave room for an individual to reflect and develop their own point of view. . .as you did.

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