Welcome to Lee Breuer's Dollhouse

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

Povinelli, an L.A.-based actor whose résumé includes regional stints in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, seems most concerned with filling Dinklage's shoes—though no one needs to remind him of the risks of exploitation. "It's an incredibly psychotic profession that we're in, and when you have an obvious difference like I do, you can be sure that people are going to manipulate it for their own benefit." His most regrettable gig: playing Adam Carolla's left testicle on Comedy Central's The Man Show. The experience, while still able to make him laugh, has forced him to ask whether he's being cast as a talented actor or a sight gag.

Breuer's reputation as auteur was particularly reassuring to Povinelli and his diminutive colleagues. Gil, for one, appreciates Dollhouse's "wide-ranging humor," which sends up not only gender hypocrisies but also overripe theatrical forms. Still, painful memories are roused when the maid picks him up in his final scene. Though it's been explained that this is Rank's apotheosis—a fantasy scene of Nora's lovelorn (and possibly syphilitic) confidant flying to his private Valhalla as a foreshadowing of his suicide—it's one of the moments when the joke revolves around size. Still, Gil claims his biggest concern is for Harris, who, in her eighth month of pregnancy, might not be the ideal candidate for lifting a 75-pound man.

Medina thinks the publicity is focusing too much on height. "I see it as a visual layer in a multilayered deconstruction, not as the central focus," he says. "In the entire play no one ever talks about how short we are. It's not like Lee has rewritten Ibsen to fit small people in it."

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

In fact, Breuer claims that between 90 and 95 percent of the words in his adaptation are from the original, though he concedes that he did a "radical cut and paste." He rearranged the first act so that his dwarf trio enter the stage together and, more drastically, transformed passages of dialogue into monologues inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Persona. "I was totally fascinated when Bibi Andersson talked for 10 minutes into the camera and all Liv Ullmann did was listen," Breuer recollects. "So I said, 'Screw some of this dialogue,' which is really only one person talking anyway. Let's underscore it and let the actor perform it the way an opera singer would an aria."

Bergman, incidentally, isn't Breuer's only inspirational film source. Fellini occupies a central place in Breuer's imagination—and not simply because they both share a love of circus theatrics and dancing midget troupes. It's the ticklish balance between comedy and tragedy that Breuer so admires. "One of my favorite films of all time is 8 1/2," he says. "I was giggling all the way through it but I was ultimately moved. The same thing with Juliet of the Spirits. Fellini shows that the further you go into comedy, the deeper you can travel into sorrow."

Breuer, in short, wants to have his parody and his pathos too. "What separates me from postmodern directors today is the way most of them think that anything emotional is realism. My position is that emotions can be formally dealt with too. You can be formally sad, formally enraged, formally weeping. You don't have to be cold, cynical, and Eurotrashy to be postmodern."

Mitchell can attest to the hairpin turns required in her portrayal of Nora. "Fortunately, I'm able to spin very quickly," she says. "It can be very campy and over-the-top in a Charles Ludlam-Ridiculous Theatre kind of way, but then I suddenly find myself genuinely crying." Assuming a doll-like persona throughout, Mitchell allows her faux Norwegian Betty Boop voice to drop as her character's consciousness crescendos into an assertion of autonomy.

Breuer turns the ending into an operatic puppet extravaganza. ("When in doubt, go literal," he says, explaining what he calls his production's "phase transition.") But what promises to be most haunting of all is the emotionalism of the male performances, which throw into relief the wounded integrity of their characters—a remarkable accomplishment given that the short-statured actors' schedules permitted only limited time for rehearsal. ("When I think that Stanislavski had 12 months to rehearse Seagull and that Brecht had 18 months to get Mother Courage's ass together!" Breuer laments.)

Like Dinklage, Povinelli wants to shed human light on a character who has come to epitomize the tyrannical husband: "Because Torvald is so insecure, he feels that he has to fulfill every norm that society has set up for him. When things crumble, he begins to see that he has nothing real in his life. He's created a dollhouse, a world of make-believe, and without fully understanding the reasons, he finds himself devastated and lost."

As Povinelli talks through his acting journey, you can feel the considered life behind his words. "Being so tremendously different provides you with an analytical depth," he acknowledges. "Like any actor, I try to bring as much of myself to the role I'm playing as possible. Every day I go out I'm made aware of my size. Why should I deny myself the richness of that experience when I go onstage?"

Related Article:
Alisa Solomon's review of Mabou Mines' Dollhouse

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