Welcome to Lee Breuer's Dollhouse

Lee Breuer Goes Little—and Literal—With His Production of Ibsen's Classic

Conducting a backstage tour during an impromptu rehearsal break, Lee Breuer can't conceal the glee he feels over his newfangled production of Dollhouse, an adaptation of Ibsen's classic. Part huckster, part genius, Breuer commands cult-like devotion from those in his creative orbit, most of whom hang on his every word as though it were gospel from some madcap visionary. In one corner of St. Ann's Warehouse, he has puppet designer Jane Catherine Shaw rigging her 36 handcrafted Victorian marionettes into their mini-opera boxes; in another, he has composer Eve Beglarian banging out Christmas carols on a toy piano. Meanwhile, Maude Mitchell, who stars as Nora and also serves as dramaturg, dispenses facts on Ibsen and Norwegian accents to the rest of the company. If only Breuer could round up his dwarves, whose hectic schedules are proving logistically exasperating, perhaps he could settle his hyperactive nerves and finally take a seat.

Back up. Ibsen with midgets? Don't let the shrub of gray chest hair fool you: Breuer's as fearless a risk taker as he was in 1970 when he co-founded Mabou Mines, the company that, along with Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group, has shaped and given impetus to today's American avant-garde theater. A philosopher in constant motion, Breuer is himself a whirligig performer, his conversation veering off in so many directions that it's not always easy to find the common thread. Particularly when the subject is as artistically complex as his deconstructed Dollhouse, a serious doll-and-puppet-filled parody, which started previews on November 8 and runs through December 7.

To understand his rationale for casting dwarf actors opposite statuesque actresses requires a few interpretive leaps. "Like I did in Gospel at Colonus, where I cast black gospel singers in Sophocles' tragedy, and in my cross-gendered Lear with Ruth Maleczech, I'm trying to make a political statement without haranguing politics from the stage," he explains. "The patriarchy is in reality three feet tall, but has a voice that will dominate six-foot women. Male power isn't dependent on physical size. At the same time we're exploring the metaphor from the woman's point of view, the way maternal love is lavished on these child-size men, which only infantilizes them further."

Marital puppets on a string: Maude Mitchell and Mark Povinelli
photo: Jay Muhlin
Marital puppets on a string: Maude Mitchell and Mark Povinelli

Gender roles in bourgeois society, to sum up, stunt the growth of both sexes. This central insight comes directly from Ibsen, though it has been eclipsed by Nora's groundbreaking journey, which culminates in the understanding that she has validity as a human being beyond her role of wife and mother. Certainly, it was shocking in 1879 to see a woman abandon her family, turning a suspenseful melodrama into what George Bernard Shaw called "the end of a chapter in human history." Ibsen stressed the universal aspect of Nora's revolt, which is why he rejected the plaudits given to him by feminists. At the Norwegian Society for Women's Rights, the playwright, who always considered himself "more of a poet and less of a social philosopher than people generally tend to suppose," succinctly put forth his position: "I thank you for your toast but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for women's rights. I am not even quite sure what women's rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights."

Breuer's choice of title underscores the point. The play is often rendered in English as A Doll's House. Breuer adopts Dollhouse (in keeping with preeminent Ibsen translator Rolf Fjelde's A Doll House) to indicate that the social tragedy is one that subsumes the entire family, not merely Nora. After all, husband Torvald and the kids suffer the cruelest blows when she slams the door on her past and ventures out into a forbidding but unavoidable future. Naturally, Breuer's literal-minded approach goes beyond semantics into staging. His adaptation conjures a domestic world in small scale, situating Ibsen's drama in a dollhouse, complete with mini-furniture, a hobbyhorse, and a toy store's worth of dolls.

The production, however, has been provoking attention because of its little actors, not little props. Peter Dinklage, the star of the sleeper film The Station Agent, was the original diminutive Torvald, having originated the role in New York Theatre Workshop's Jonathan Larson Lab in 2002 and this past summer at the Sundance Institute Theater Laboratory. Captive of his own overdue success (including Jay Leno and Jon Stewart movie plugs), he was forced to pull out. He was replaced by his understudy, the actor first cast as Dr. Rank, Mark Povinelli, a dwarf nearly 10 inches smaller than the four-foot-five Dinklage, though just as handsome, with a face that is often compared to French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo's. Povinelli is joined by equally small Ricardo Gil, who now plays Rank, and the relatively rangy (at four feet six) Kris Medina in the role of Nils Krogstad.

How do the "LPs," one of the acceptable terms according to the Little People of America website (lpaonline.org), feel about all the attention? According to producer Lisa Harris, who also plays Nora's brandy-nipping maid Helene, Dinklage was originally concerned that the production might "get too carnival." Video excerpts of his workshop performance reveal, however, a sensitive portrait that, to a degree greater than the ensemble's other characterizations, errs on the side of realism rather than parody.

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