Friday, August 6, 2010

Douglas Messerli "You Great Big Beautiful Doll" (on Mabou Mines A Dollhouse)


by Douglas Messerli

Conceived and directed by JoAnne Akalaitis Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power,Zellerbach Theater, Annenberg Center, University of Pennsylvania, September 23-27, 1983

Lee Breuer (book and lyrics), Bob Telson (music and lyrics) The Gospel at Colonus, James A. Doolittle Theater, Los Angeles / December 1985

Percy and Eleonore Aldon and Christopher Doherty (screenplay), Bob Telson (music), Lee Breuer (lyrics) Bagdad Café / 1987

Lee Breuer La Divina Caricatura (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002)

Conceived by Lee Breuer, adapted by Lee Breuer and Maude Mitchell from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Mabou Mines DollHouse, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York, November 2003 / Freund Playhouse, University of California Los Angeles, November 28-December 10, 2006 / The performance I witnessed was on Sunday, December 3, 2006

While it is popular among contemporary directors to “deconstruct” classic dramatic texts, Lee Breuer refreshingly “reconstructs” Ibsen’s great drama. A Doll’s House is, in fact, one of the Norwegian playwright’s most contrived and preachy works; when performed today, 127 years after its original premiere, it is often a painful ordeal for actors and audience alike. But rather than eviscerating Ibsen’s dramatic achievement, Breuer simply revisits the text, investing its metaphors and Victorian structures with startling new meaning.

The entering audience is greeted with what appears to be a “collapsed” play, the performance completed, the sets, some of them already crated, littering the backstage, ready to be shipped off into history. Obviously, Breuer is reminding us that what we will soon see is a “drama,” a theatrical representation of life; but the implications go far deeper: for suddenly as the lights dim, pianist Ning Yu entering and bowing to the audience, deep red velvet-like curtains—the kind one might see in European opera houses or theaters of the 19th and early 20th century—fall into place to the sides and back of the stage. As the play is about to begin a similar curtain falls into place between the audience and the performance space, giving the sense that something is about to begin all over again. The previously “collapsed” play, the old Ibsen warhorse, is about to be revived—rebuilt from the ground up. Breuer makes it clear that we are about to witness a new work, Mabou Mines DollHouse.

Indeed, with the front curtain’s rise Nora rushes forward like a manic doll herself and, along with stagehands, raises the collapsed set—a dollhouse gift for her children’s Christmas, complete with doors, windows, chairs, couches, desks, and a hanging chandelier—an imitation Victorian living room, built to the size of Emmy and Ivar Helmer, Nora’s beloved daughter and son. Maude Mitchell’s Nora resembles a frenzied wind-up doll more than a Victorian mother, a machine reacting to events and others around her. The text simply reiterates what we have already discerned, Nora is less a human being than a toy, her husband Thorvald responding to her return home with a litany of his pet names for her: lark, squirrel, skylark, spendthrift, featherhead, and sweet tooth, nearly all prefaced with the diminutive “little.” As the doorbell rings, Nora scurries about to tidy up the room (in both Ibsen and the Mabou Mines version), readjusting the clock, which results in the appearance of the clock’s cuckoo, which reiterates both her silly and foolish condition and the fact that, like the bird who lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, this lean, tall, blonde is as completely out of place in her miniaturized world as she is out of time; if, like Dilsey, the black servant of William Faulkner’s Compton family, she automatically readjusts the clock, Nora’s also readjusts herself over and over again to life in a tiny world where any moment one fears she may break the toy chairs and couches simply by sitting upon them.

The visit of her old school friend, Kristine Linde, reiterates the abnormalness of Nora’s life, for, at first, Helmer’s still beautiful wife hardly recognizes her friend, who, having to support herself and her family for the last few years, seems less like Nora’s contemporary than an older, maiden aunt. Even Kristine describes her friend as a “child.”

Kristine has come to ask Nora to intercede with her husband on her behalf for a job—a position which temporarily delights Nora by giving her a sense of purpose, and, accordingly, she admits to her friend that she previously “saved” her husband’s life years before by borrowing money so they might travel for his health to Italy. This revelation is, in fact, the crux of the play, representing as it does in Nora’s mind her one selfless and responsible act—perhaps the only act which she has been able to accomplish as an adult. Simultaneously, however, it has enslaved her to another man, one of Helmer’s underlings at his bank, the evil Krogstad, whom Helmer, having now risen to the position of bank manager, is about to fire.

All this information—tedious if necessary background plot in Ibsen’s “well made play”— is a delight to behold in the Mabou Mines reconstruction, as Mitchell emotionally flits from a naughty, secretive schoolgirl to a pampered and willful wife to a woman proud of her accomplishment and sacrifice.

Much of Helmer’s early encounter with Nora occurs—even in the original Ibsen drama—between rooms, as he calls from his office out to his wife. Breuer and Mitchell have simply delayed their face-to-face encounter so that when Helmer finally enters his appearance is an ironic inevitability: the males in this cast are performed by little people, men no taller than 4 and one half feet. Suddenly we perceive that the dollhouse in which Nora and Kristine awkwardly sit and converse is the perfect size for Nora’s children (the son played by a primordial female dwarf, Hannah Kirtzeck), and for Helmer and his male peers, Dr. Rank and Nils Krogstad. If this may at first appear as a kind of simplified gimmick, a ridiculous literalization of Ibsen’s tropes, by play’s end it has forced its audience to rethink Ibsen’s world, bringing The Doll’s House into the 21st century. The shock of Nora’s slamming door for late 19th century audiences is recreated for us, as we face, in the Mabou Mines version, a world in which Nora is dislocated and from which she is dissociated, forced to behave in a contorted doll-like manner—behavior brilliantly displayed in Maude Mitchell’s con-catenation of sound (from baby talk babble to sexually explicit groans and moans to Garboesque quips in mock Scandinavian brogue) and movement (with all the bends, twists, turns and long-legged splits of a Raggedy Ann).

Breuer also mines the whole range of Ibsen’s structural devices, revealing the evil machinations of characters such as Krogstad to be related to the popular melodramatic gestures of late 19th and early 20th century plays, and the stuffy, comic posturings of Ibsen’s provincial folk as sharing something with Feydeau’s farce. The creator/director underscores Nora’s sexual titillation of Helmer’s friend, Rank (upon showing him her silk stockings Nora continues: “Aren't they lovely? It is so dark here now, but to-morrow—. No, no, no! you must only look at the feet. Oh, well, you may have leave to look at the legs too.”), resulting in his startling declaration of his love that in this production—along with Krogstad’s threat to reveal her forgery of her father’s signature on the contract for the loan—sends the flailing doll-wife nearly over the edge, strobe lights recreating her sense of a manic speeding up of time and place. Given the sudden dilemmas with which Nora is faced, it is almost as if she has been forced to jump from her protected Victorian household into the stark and often frightening realities of domestic life with which we are all faced today.

Similarly, Thorvald’s Act III confession that he “objectifies” his wife—he describes himself speaking little to her and sending stolen glances in her direction so that he might pretend that they are “secretly” in love, that she is his “secretly promised bride”—is revealed in the Mabou Mines production for what it truly is: a voyeuristic and fetishistic act that culminates in a near rape—unimaginable in Ibsen’s day—that seems to lie just below the surface of Helmer’s confession in the original that his “blood in on fire” and his reminder that he is her husband with a husband’s rights.

Indeed, Breuer and Mitchell draw on the whole bag of dramatic styles—tragic, histrionic, melodramatic, comic, farcical, and absurdist (a demonstration akin to the various dramatic genres named by Hamlet’s resident pedant, Polonius)—to point up the implications of Ibsen’s dialogue.

I have always thought Ibsen’s plays to be close to spoken operas, something which apparently also struck the creators of Mabou Mines DollHouse, as the drama morphs into a representation of an opera house (stunningly designed by Narelle Sissons), each box seat filled with male and female puppets, paralleling the now larger-than-life Nora playing the miller’s beautiful daughter to Helmer’s Rumpelstiltskin as she sings an operatic aria of her desire for a miracle that never occurred. Pulling away her clothes to reveal her breasts and mons pubis, this Nora, in her declaration that she longer believes that wonderful things might happen, whips off her wig of golden locks to reveal a shaved head before she slams the door to the box in which she has been entrapped. If the play began in the 19th century, it ends in the possibility that in the future men may live in an empty world where women powerfully avenge the wrongs they have been forced to suffer.

Los Angeles, December 4, 2006
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 7 (January 2007).
Copyright (c) 2007 by Douglas Messerli

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