|Welcome to the dollhouse, Nora! Photos: Richard Termine|
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.|