Sophie Birkedlalen, Eamonn Farrell, Ricardo Luis Gil, Janet Girardeau, Hannah Kritzeck, Margaret Lancaster, Ilia Dodd Loomis, Kristopher Medina, Maude Mitchell, Nic Novicki, Mark Povinelli, Eilert Sundt, Jessica Weinstein, Isabel Yourman, Ning Yu
For inquisitive theatergoers and those who love to see the classics flipped on their heads, the opportunity to enter the world of Mabou Mines DollHouse, currently playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, is one that shouldn’t be missed.
An adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House by director Lee Breuer and the play’s star Maude Mitchell for New York-based company Mabou Mines, DollHouse, which, over the past six years, has toured worldwide and is now returning to Brooklyn, turns Ibsen’s drama into a scorching, at times farcical examination of gender roles.
The gimmick of the production is unusual and brilliant: all of the female characters are played by very tall women, while the male characters are played by little people.
As Nora Helmer is dominated by the men in her life – her husband Torvald and Dr. Rank – this production makes it extraordinarily clear just how literally small– the men are in regards to their ideas about the roles of women in society.
At times confounding, the production uses strange, sometimes unnecessary choreography as well as well-considered puppets and overexaggerated Norwegian accents – “miniaturized,” as Breuer’s program notes calls them – to further the dreamy, toylike quality of the production as a whole. Beautifully played collages of piano pieces by Grieg – arranged by Eve Beglarian, who also provides original music – serve as underscoring and are performed by Ning Yu at a piano built into the theatre’s stage.
Supporting the cast is a sumpsuously designed production. Soon after taking their seats, the audience find themselves surrounded on all visible sides by luscious red curtains. The sets are by Nisele Sissons, who also imagines the Helmers’ comfortable home as a dollhouse of its own, inside which the Helmer children play with their own identical, smaller-scale dollhouse.
The dollhouse’s inhabitants are similarly fascinating, each actor a uniquely painted personality. Mark Povinelli and Ricardo Luis Gil are appropriately menacing as Torvald Helmer and Dr. Rank respectively. It’s good to see roles for little people in the theatre that don’t merely patronize. Though the actors’ heights are at times the subject of jokes, the laughter elicted is clearly in response to the effectiveness of the concept and not at the expense of the actors, who are in on the joke themselves.
As Nora Helmer, the heroine of the play, co-adaptor Maude Mitchell is a sight to behold in her frilly, lace-trimmed blue dress (costumes are by Meganne George), her cheeks rouged, her hair a yellow blond. Delivering most of her lines in the production’s standard minaturized Norweigian accent allows her, when the time comes for the hitherto established conventions to collapse, to take on a deeper tone as she begins to confront her manipulative husband; her accomplishment here is no small feat.
During the final twenty minutes, DollHouse, at times fairly faithful to Ibsen’s original text despite its wacky tone, takes its most daring departure in an overlong, visually arresting operatic sequence that finds the Helmers’ domestic situation played as a lover’s quarrel of oversized, Wagnerian proportions.
Nora perched – physically transformed – in an opera box upstage, she confronts her husband from the remove of one who’s yet another stung-up puppet in a male-dominated world typified by complicit wives accompanying their husbands on nights to the opera. It’s the drawing out of that outsider’s perspective, that reimaging and distillation of Ibsen’s play that makes this show so truly fascinating. At times its experimentation wears thin, but it’s never less than engaging. DollHouse is, in the end, a must-see curiosity, a one-of-a-kind glistening trinket of a production.