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Growing Pains


She leaps onto a table, arms flailing, skirt flapping against her kicking legs. Jiggling a tambourine in her right hand, she bangs it rhythmically against her hip, and then against her head. If that weren’t enough to create the desperate frenzy of Nora’s tarantella, which famously closes the second act of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, director Lee Breuer adds a strobe effect in his Mabou Mines adaptation, Dollhouse. Under a flashing light that fractures her motions into disconnected jerks, Nora comes unglued.

The scene, of course, is only the rehearsal for Nora’s dance. The performance takes place offstage in Act III, and we hear about it after the fact, when Nora’s husband, Torvald, offers his critique: “It rather overstepped the proprieties of art.” Though it may seem counterintuitive to recognize a deep affinity between Breuer, the bad boy of avant-garde theater, and Ibsen, the father of realism, Torvald could well be describing both artists with that remark. Indeed, Breuer’s strange and beautiful overstepping approach to Ibsen’s classic reveals, most of all, the old master’s appropriation and transcendence of the proprieties of his day.

Ibsen invoked, even as he thwarted, the conventions of the well-made play that would have been familiar to his turn-of-the-century audiences. To make these hoary devices visible to spectators some 100 years later, Breuer campily quotes melodramatic gestures and contrivances—the actors strike arm-to-forehead poses of distress; keyboard accompaniment (souped-up Edvard Grieg played by Ning Yu) underscores the action, with especially ominous chords whenever the villainous Krogstadt enters. Then Breuer goes a step further, and subjects Ibsen’s once revolutionary realism to the same deconstructive treatment by making every psychological and social suggestion absolutely literal.

At first, such theatrical italicizing seems too much. As Nora, Maude Mitchell plays Torvald’s “little songbird” by trotting around with little geisha steps, pinching her voice up into a high, nasal register, and tacking twittering nonsense syllables onto her lines. The flirtation between Krogstadt (Kristopher Medina) and Nora’s old friend Kristine (Honora Fergusson) gives way to frantic fellatio. Nora’s home is, indeed, a dollhouse, with foldout cardboard walls and miniature furniture. (The set—gorgeously enfolded by lush red draperies that drop into place at the show’s start—is designed by Narelle Sissons.)

Most extremely, Breuer has cast large women and little men in the roles. Nora towers over Torvald (Mark Povinelli) and their friend Dr. Rank (Ricardo Gil). No taller than four and a half feet, the men inhabit the space comfortably. Torvald commands the roost, sitting back at ease in a tiny chair and propping his feet up on his desk, while Nora, Kristine, and the maid Helene (Lisa Harris) have to crouch, crawl, and contort—actually belittle themselves—to function in the men’s world. The surprisingly moving result is a Nora as tragically lost in her drawing room as Rhoda once was in Richard Foreman’s Potatoland.

Indeed, any Torvaldian objections I might have had to Breuer’s excesses dissolved as the production proceeded, especially as it plumbed deeper emotion than many a traditional Doll House I’ve seen. With the actors superbly combining psychological realism and stylized distance, Rank’s unwelcome confession of his love for Nora is as painful as it is parodic, and Torvald’s cluelessness about his wife’s existential crisis comes off with an excruciating clarity.

Until, that is, Breuer pushes the pathos as far as it will go, and then even further. He not only turns Nora’s aria-like departure speech into operatic song that she lip-synchs from a balcony box, but has her yank off her bouncing blond curls to reveal a severe shaved head. What’s more, the scene is replicated in a startling upstage panel of 18 stage boxes, each containing a puppet Nora and Torvald in the throes of separation. With his final image—Nora’s little daughter taking up her brother’s toy sword and coldly repeating her mother’s parting words—Breuer may be suggesting that there’s no ground for women (or for men’s idea of women) between warbler and warrior. I don’t agree. Nonetheless, Breuer powerfully invites us to consider the ramifications of Nora’s exit for the world beyond her fictional slamming door.

Working within an illusionistic frame, Ibsen has never been as open as Sophocles or Shakespeare to productions that shift period, setting, and perspective. Little surprise, then, that Dollhouse is not as interpretatively radical as Breuer’s Gospel at Colonus and gender-reversed Lear. (Full disclosure: I was Lear‘s dramaturg.) Rather, Dollhouse thrillingly re-establishes the seething, self-referential theatricality of Ibsen’s realism.

Nora dances the tarantella as if her life depends on it. The life of our theater depends on such daringly tarantellian directors as Breuer.

Related Article:

Welcome to Lee Breuer’s Dollhouse: Lee Breuer Goes Little—and Literal—With His Production of Ibsen’s Classic” by Charles McNulty