A trio of singing midgets, a live pianist pounding away at a keyboard, and a dizzying strobe light seem to have no place in a play by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian dramatist and one of the most celebrated playwrights of the nineteenth century. Yet Lee Breuer’s “Mabou Mines DollHouse”— an adaptation of Ibsen’s proto-feminist work “A Doll’s House”—includes just such elements at the Cutler Majestic Theatre this weekend, where it finished its nine-year world tour. With the male cast members all standing below four and a half feet tall, and the female actresses all towering at heights of six feet or more, the production makes visually apparent the absurdity of sexism, as diminutive men domineeringly control the Ibsen’s female characters. Unfortunately, these creative decisions fail to cohere into a nuanced artistic whole, and the production merely makes a mockery of Ibsen’s masterpiece.
The play focuses on the struggles of Nora (Maude Mitchell), a Norwegian housewife keeping a terrible secret from her husband Torvald (Kristopher Medina). In the first scene, Nora reveals that she she lied to Torvald early in their marriage, as he had grown deathly ill but had refused to borrow the money necessary for a health-restoring journey to Italy. In order to save her husband’s life, and protect his considerable pride, Nora arranged a secret loan, since women at the time were unable to borrow money without their husbands’ consent. Claiming the sudden windfall was inheritance from her father’s recent death, Nora whisked Torvald off to Italy, and secretly spent the ensuing years paying off her debt in small, carefully-collected sums. Nearing the end of her debt, Nora longs for financial freedom, and nearly achieves it, until her frightening creditor Krogstad (Nic Novicki) decides to seek revenge.
This particular production forgoes any attempts at realism, and instead emphasizes the theatricality of play. Breuer establishes clear narrative frames for the viewer and places great emphasis on spectacle. At the beginning of the show, a woman dressed in a floor-length evening gown walks to the center of the stage, takes a bow, and then seats herself at a piano on the corner of the stage. She proceeds to provide dramatic accompaniment for nearly every scene in the play. The pianists’ presence recalls the melodrama of silent films, which were often accompanied by live musicians when screened in cinemas.
Breuer’s exploration of sexism is most powerfully visualized through Nora, who first appears onstage as a towering blonde with a mane of loose curls and an elegant, cerulean blue silk dress with ruffles and a train. Yet the moment that Nora begins to speak, it is clear that she has been completely infantilized. She delivers all of her lines in the sing-song voice of a toddler, bouncing her way around the set as she crawls under tables and clambering into boxes. When interacting with her husband, Nora’s childish mannerisms morph into a servile dependence; when asking Torvald for a favor, she gets on her knees and crawls to him on all fours, begging for a small bit of money. Moments like these obscure the quiet strength of Ibsen’s original Nora. Though undeniably oppressed by her patriarchal environment, Ibsen’s Nora is nonetheless able to orchestrate complex legal and financial transactions and maintain a quiet inner strength, an important fact that is entirely obscured by Breuer’s interpretation of the script.
As with Nora’s oversimplified characterization, certain whole scenes of “Mabou Mines DollHouse” are performed with no attempt at subtlety—actors careen through their lines with reckless abandon and cram the visual field with violent and shocking images. In one important scene, Nora practices an Italian folk dance called the tarantella; instead of being bewitching and captivating, she dances frantically as actors rush the stage dressed as devils and begin to lash her with red whips. Amid wild shrieks and a pulsating strobe light, white sheets printed with dialogue from the script unfurl from the top of the stage, and accompany the jarring, breakneck scene with silent cries for help.
The doll motif—like Breuer’s other theatrical elements—is painfully overdone, but at least lends the work some moments of aesthetic pleasure. The entire play takes place in a life-size dollhouse adorned with roses and decorated with swaths of pastel wallpaper. With its sugary colors and teapot-top arches, the whole set piece resembles a confectionery delight. In terms of costuming, Nora and her daughter are dressed identically in royal-blue silk dresses, and each holds an oversize doll with the same matching frock. Together, the two women and their dolls range in size from six feet tall to Barbie-sized, and when viewed as a tableau, suggest a set of Russian nesting dolls.
Certainly, Ibsen’s understated play leaves significant room for artistic interpretation, and a skillful adaptation of it would thoughtfully select certain elements to enhance or reinterpret. But with its flattened, unsympathetic characters and over-the-top visual and aural theatricality, the “Mabou Mines DollHouse” fails to present any instances of creative dilation. Instead, it washes over all of the script with an unrelenting intensity that leaves Ibsen’s work sullied like a once beautiful field mercilessly trampled by a garish carnival.
—Staff writer Clio C. Smurro can be reached at email@example.com.