Thursday, November 3, 2011

Epic theatre as epic fail; or - does size matter?

Welcome to the dollhouse, Nora!  Photos: Richard Termine
I don't like lectures much.  I avoid Suze Orman and Deepak Chopra like the plague, and I remember my mind always tended to drift back when I was in class in college.

Which may be why Mabou Mines' DollHouse (currently at ArtsEmerson) grated on my ears more irritatingly than nails on chalkboard.  For it's one very long lecture (two hours and forty-five minutes worth!) from  the Professor Emeritus of Postmodern Theatre himself, Lee Breuer, who "deconstructs" Ibsen's A Dollhouse so thoroughly - indeed, all but relentlessly - that he might as well be center stage at a blackboard, circling things, and drawing arrows from Point A to Point B. Indeed, the production really should be subtitled "Lee Breuer Explains It All For You."

Now I admit - some people loved being in class back in college.  And some people like "deconstructing" things more than they like experiencing them.  Not for them the thrills of theatrical illusion, the seductions of identification and catharsis!  No, some people prefer taking a car apart to driving one.  They'd rather dissect a horse than ride it.

Bu then some people enjoy talking to insurance salesmen! And filling out tax returns! I actually think those are the kind of people who might enjoy DollHouse - my guess is that if you think of yourself as bohemian but are actually utterly bourgeois - or if you have a thick, pedantic streak right down the middle of your personality (as many critics do, which perhaps explains the applause for this long-touring production) then this could be the show for you.

Although I have to report that, judging from the audience at ArtsEmerson, most theatre-goers are not that kind of person. The thin house on Wednesday night was often restive, and the crowd shrank noticeably after intermission.  (The people behind me left well before that, declaring loudly to anyone who would listen, "Will this never END?")  I myself had to run out, grab a snack, and knock back a few drinks to face the second half, and I almost didn't return at all - partly because my buddy suddenly quailed once we admitted to ourselves that intermission was probably over.  "I'm not going back there!" he said to me from behind his beer.  "And you can't make me!!"

Trooper that I am, I trudged back across the street alone and ducked back into the theatre.  But you know - the drinks helped!  So my advice is - come drunk.  Or better yet, come at intermission (and drunk).

Because trust me, that makes all of Breuer's spoon-fed metaphors a whole lot easier to swallow.  In case you haven't heard, the production's central gambit is that the female characters are played by tall women, while the oppressive men are played by little people.  I know, that sounds stupid - but wait!  It's actually really complicated and stuff!  Take Nora, for instance (if you don't know who I'm talking about, read the plot summary on Wikipedia, or the review in the Globe).  She's played by the towering Maude Mitchell - but she speaks in a breathy little doll's voice (which is often hard to hear - the size of the Cutler Majestic dwarfs everybody in DollHouse).  So - do you get it?  She's big AND she's small.  Mitchell looks like a giantess on the tiny set - she has to crawl through the door - but various psychological visions loom over her (all female, btw), and at one point she's played by a little person too!  And her children are sometimes dolls, but sometimes they're little people as well.  And the toy piano over on stage left doubles for a big keyboard that looks like it's built right into the stage.  Get it?  The whole stage is a piano on which Ibsen is playing cheesy nineteenth-century music, beneath whore/opera house drapes and a cheap chandelier.  Get it?  Get it?  Get it?

Oh, Jesus Christ.  Breuer doesn't trust us to "get it" all by ourselves even for a minute; he can't let a single moment breathe; this isn't a production, it's a non-stop harangue. And a crude one at that - the text is being "deconstructed" with a box of crayolas.  And if you think that sounds like fun in a slummy kind of way, believe me, the relentless air-quotes rob the antics of their power as satire.  Laughter depends on surprise, after all, but there are no surprises here; everything is pre-determined; it's a phony paean to "freedom" in which no one and nothing is in any way free.  And God forbid Lee Breuer should ever have an original or controversial idea about Ibsen!  What really makes DollHouse such deadly theatre is not that its director's perceptions are "wrong" - indeed, they amount to a standard-issue interpretation of A Dollhouse - it's that all they're all clichés.  And when Breuer "complicates" his clichés, they just become, well, complicated clichés.

No, please - don't do it! For all our sakes!

Somewhere you can tell the director knows this, because his production becomes more desperate as it grinds on.  Gimmick is piled on gimmick, and "shock" on "shock"; what was already meta goes meta all over again.  Banners drop from the flies; strobe lights flicker; the actors throw furniture at each other; ghouls stride through on stilts; blizzards of snow blow onto the stage; dwarves brandish strap-ons; and it all has no theatrical impact whatsoever.  I know - politically, you're being pounded with a hammer; but theatrically, your mind remains untouched -  indeed, I spent some time going over my grocery list,  roused only when the actors started to strip down, when I began praying to myself "Nooo . . . please God, don't let them go all the way!"  (Sometimes they don't, but be warned, sometimes they do.)

I know the objection has often been raised to this production that the little people in its cast are being exploited by Breuer and Mabou Mines.  Only I didn't mind that, really.  I mean they are being exploited, rather obviously, and the objectification is sometimes quite creepy. But they've agreed to appear this way, and they seem to believe in the project, so it's really nobody's business, I suppose.  The idea seems to be that they are not being held up as literal grotesques, as they might once have been in some horrible sideshow, but instead are being presented as grotesque metaphors.  Okay, guys - whatever!  In the old days, theatre depended on the self-exposure of its characters for dramatic impact; today, it depends on the self-exposure of its actors. So it's your call.  For the record, several of these performers transcend their casting, particularly Kristopher Medina, Joe Gnoffo, and Hannah Kritzeck; I'd be very interested to see them in a show that didn't exploit their physical appearance (I know, I know, for highbrow, not lowbrow, effects; big deal!).  But as our theatre is constructed - or deconstructed! - now, that's unfortunately unlikely.

I felt basically the same way about the production's star, Maude Mitchell - she, too, was betraying her obvious talent, and was knee-deep in self-exploitation.  Indeed, for the first three-quarters of the show, she delivered the most obnoxious performance by a great actress I've ever seen.  Her "living doll" act was a direct contradiction of Ibsen's development of Nora; it was the opposite of "acting;" and besides, it was just boring as hell.

But wait; let's take a time out to discuss epic theatre, shall we - for Mabou Mines basically represents the downtown dregs of that Brechtian mode - and how epic theatre can become an epic fail, as it does here.  The style, which depends on maintaining emotional distance in the audience, is meant to thwart simplistic identification with the characters and situations it treats, the better to nurture intellectual, rather than emotional, engagement.  (And it can still work; a brilliant example was The Speaker's Progress a few weeks ago.)

Alas, what many Brechtians (including Brecht himself) often allowed epic theatre to devolve into was a simplistic identification with a political, rather than emotional, stance; it became the melodrama of the left.  And that's part of what's so wrong with DollHouse.  It's pretentious and crass because it imagines that its lamely rendered feminist posture counts as enlightenment, when of course these days it's simply the lingua franca of its audience.  And can a true radical preach only to the choir?  (Especially at such monotonous length?)

I often wish the culture could remember that the original "A Doll's House" was actually titled A Dollhouse - the change in that title reflects an unfortunate distortion in our perception of the text; Ibsen was positing an existential, rather than a feminist, critique of two people (Nora and her husband, Torvald). This is what makes the play map poorly to epic theatre - Ibsen's interested in Nora's inner transformation, her consciousness, her "soul," and we need to identify with her to access that artistic material - a process which is neither dated nor inherently melodramatic, btw. In fact, in its emphasis on interiority and the flouting of accepted political norms, A Dollhouse represents the antithesis of melodrama (and the antithesis of epic theatre, too). Indeed, it's hard not to feel that if he were alive today, old Henrik would have in his sights the dominion of Lee Breuer - who is all too obviously playing a manipulative off-stage Torvald to Mitchell's Nora.

Like much conceptual theatre, it gets better at the last minute - the whole show was basically a preamble to this installation.
But to be fair to old Lee, I'll admit he does have one great idea, at the very finish of this tedious extravaganza. In the final moments, Mitchell's Nora doesn't slam an actual door but instead leaves the stage, to strip down in a box and have a good cry with the audience; and a backstage curtain rises to reveal another audience, of doll-size Noras and Torvalds, watching from their own tiny boxes. It's a great, multi-valent conceptual stroke - even if the nudity feels a bit, well, melodramatic (Mitchell's head is shaved, too, like a concentration camp survivor's), and the segue into lip-synching to actual arias (another nod to the nineteenth century, I guess!) feels forced. Still, the overall effect is resonant - you could even argue that it validates the rest of the production (if it had been shortened to a brisk, bitter skit, that is).  But it's important to remember that this image is not about the play itself, or its characters, but rather about their subsequent effect on society - a more valid object for the epic-theatre treatment, I think. Indeed, we sense in these last moments that only now are we reaching appropriate material for the Mabou Mines method. But at the same time, we're grateful the whole dreary shebang is over. As is the production itself; this is the end of the road for it; these are the farewell performances of its years-long tour. And over all, I'd have to say - good riddance.


  1. I’m sorry you didn't like the production. I was hoping you would. I have seen it two times now--it was in Providence several years ago--and both times found it an ethereal experience.

    I usually don't go in for this kind of stuff. The trappings of postmodern theater are by now all cliches and usually a “postmodern” interpretation of a work means the director is looking for an excuse to cover up a sloppy, incoherent production. You can't just take the piss out of a work and leave everything in pieces. That's not deconstruction, that's just destruction. The pieces and their placement in relation to one another need to have significance.

    This production was a true deconstruction. Nowadays, most people use that term to mean analyzing very carefully, but that's not what it means at all. It's about taking a seemingly coherent idea and exposing it as a fusing of opposites then breaking apart the opposites to show how weakly and unstably they are actually held together. What you reveal is that the center cannot hold and that at the center of what seemed like a sound concept lies an irresolvable incoherence.

    What Breuer realized, I think, was that Dollhouse was a fusing of two opposite genres--19th century melodrama and 19th century Gothic. Of course, Ibsen was a genius and like Shakespeare when he used genre he repackaged it to make it seem like an entirely new art form, but Breuer insists on seeing through this.

    It's very unsettling to see Dollhouse reduced to melodrama. They way the actors were vamping up their lines and the piano music grew overly dramatic to the point of being bad music made you think Breuer was mocking a brilliant work. And Breuer is doing exactly that. He's pissing all over this great work, telling you it’s little more than cliches.

    But what I did find a revelation was the way Breuer exposed the Gothic elements of the play. I had never thought of Dollhouse as so full of terror and horror.

    So there you have it--a melding of melodrama and the Gothic--and what you realize is that this is a perfect way to dramatize Nora's state of mind--as moving back and forth constantly between the domestic and the nightmarish. Hence all that rushing around on stage that Maude Mitchell does. She is veering uncontrollably between the two extremes because they cannot be reconciled. This is the incoherence--you might say madness--at the heart of Ibsen's work and it is out of this ferment that she gains a new awareness of herself. You could put this in political terms--Nora uncovers the incoherency at the heart of the patriarchy--but you really don't need to do that either. Breuer's Dollhouse, like Ibsen's, is about achieving a radical new sense of sense out of the ruins and wreckage of your society’s principles and beliefs.

    I'm going on too long here, but let me talk about the ending. The end of the the traditional version of Dollhouse is an intensely private, domestic moment--the end of a marriage, husband and wife exposed at their most vulnerable. But Breuer inverts this. He makes the end a spectacle. The genre is opera and Nora is the star.

    To what ends? Forcing you to reexperience Nora's assertion of radical autonomy for herself (and, as Shaw realized, it is radical autonomy, not merely a feminist identity). Nora's final moment in the play becomes the soprano's aria right before she dies. And suddenly you hear again the power of Nora's assertion of her new identity. It's stripped from its original context so you can see anew how powerful Nora's swansong really is.

    One final note: I am not an academic and no fan of literary theory, which was shoved down my throat at college and only served to strip me the please of reading I always took in reading literature. But in this case, since Breuer is openly inviting a postmodernist interpretation, I think it can be useful.

  2. Thanks Lawrence, for your thoughtful comment. Clearly some folks have enjoyed the Mabou Mines DollHouse, mysterious as that may be to me.

    I'd like to clarify a few points, however. I actually agree with your take on Breuer's interpretation of A Dollhouse - and what's more, I pretty much agree with Breuer on many points! I'm less in alignment with your "narrow" reading of the term "deconstruction" - but let's not split hairs.

    I do want to insist, however, on something that few people will admit - even your narrow reading of "deconstruction" requires that it operate within some frame of reference. You simply cannot "expose contradictions" in a work of art without some such larger context - which of course leads to the inevitable question, "How do you know that your larger frame is not an unstable amalgam of contradictions, too?"

    This is where you begin to perceive that deconstruction is almost always an act of privilege - a kind of droit du seigneur often claimed by some academic over some helpless artist. And as we all know, privileges often degrade into oppression.

    Breuer, for instance, clearly feels he can privilege himself over Ibsen - he can ignore the master's dramatic techniques (even parody them), make all subtexts bluntly obvious, and generally run amok. Okay; but to earn that privilege, it seems to me that Breuer should also attack his own frame of reference as aggressively as he does Ibsen's. In other words, deconstruction should be a two-way street. This is what made the deconstruction of "Twelfth Night" in "The Speaker's Progress" so thrilling, btw - its director, the brilliant Sulayman Al-Bassam, was always making clear the instability of his own frame of reference, that of the Arab Spring. His deconstruction was therefore open-ended, exploratory - and theatrically exciting.

    Lee Breuer does nothing of the kind, however - and thus much of the moral subtlety of Ibsen's original play is lost or destroyed in his version. Torvald may be a moral dwarf, for instance, but he does have legitimate claims on Nora (as do her children!) - and frankly, she herself is not an entirely appealing moral figure, and is certainly no martyr, as Breuer paints her. No honest deconstruction could end in these conclusions - only a kind of progressive political philistinism could lead to such an apotheosis; which is, rather obviously, precisely what is powering Mabou Mines and DollHouse.

    It occurs to me that we're well overdue for a more vigorous critical approach toward "deconstruction" as a stage technique - or at the very least some sort of parsing of how it can be evaluated, of when it is legitimate and when it is not. I'm glad, for instance, that Breuer's techniques revealed to you the "Gothic" strains in Ibsen. Still, that only makes his deconstruction effective pedagogy, not effective art.

  3. While I enjoyed Mabou Mines' production (after all, I'm a sucker for spectacle) after reading this review and discussing it with my partner who accompanied me, I realized that when I was describing what it was that fascinated me, I found myself not thinking in terms of the themes, characters or even the story of the play, but rather in terms of metaphor, allegory, and synecdoche.

  4. Okay, it's an allegory - maybe even a synecdoche (although I try to NEVER say that word, and so should you). But it's a crude, over-determined allegory. Unlike the play, which is open-ended and fascinating.

  5. And having been reminded of the play's open-endedness by your criticism of this particular production, I see that everything that Breuer drew out, only tells us about the structure of the play and not the story.