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 Learwith 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.

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."

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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