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A CurtainUp Review
Mabou Mines' DollHouse

By Jenny Sandman
Then why go on supporting a society like this? What does it live by? Lies and pretenses— from Henrik Ibsen Pillars of Society.
Maude Mitchell as Nora, Mark Povinelli as Torvald
Maude Mitchell as Nora, Mark Povinelli as Torvald
(Photo: Richard Termine)
When I was in graduate school at Columbia, we were offered the choice between a collaborative seminar on Ibsen and one on Dürrenmatt. No one wanted Ibsen, so we had to draw straws. I lost, and so was consigned to a semester of Norwegian realism. I didn't fall in love with Ibsen, and neither did many of my classmates. We sat down one day and figured out exactly what it was we didn't like: his predictability, something not true of most modern theater. And yet, the infuriatingly predfictable Ibsen has been dubbed The Father of Modern Theater.

The structure of all Ibsen plays goes something like this:
. We are introduced to an illusion.
. A character is introduced who will destroy this illusion; someone knows this.
. There is an attempt to bargain with the insurgent.
.The illusion is destroyed; the bargaining didn't work.
.Finally, there is a movement toward an ideal.

A Doll's House, written in 1879, marked a fundamental breakthrough for realistic drama. It subverted the traditional play structure of the time, by ending with ambiguity, not catharsis. It is probably Ibsen's most famous and most performed play. It is the story of the slow dissolution of a bad marriage, famously ending with a door slam, as Nora walks out on her husband. That slamming door rocked nineteenth-century morals. Because it was considered unthinkable for a woman to leave her husband and children, productions were banned in many cities.

Despite the play's firmly-rooted realism, it has been adapted and altered almost more than any other modern drama (although Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is right up there, as well). The modern performance trend is to completely subvert this realism. Witness Mabou Mines' Doll House, now on its second run at St. Ann's Warehouse. There was also a short-lived Broadway musical version in which Nora and Torvald fight it out in the last scene, literally swinging from the chandelier. Other versions have had Nora climb back into the house through a window, losing her sanity and begin killing, and not having her leave home at all, but climb onto her roof to chain smoke. There were also several early alterations that kept Nora at home, safely ensconced within the male power structure.

Naturally the temptation is to read A Doll's House as an early cry for feminism. The famously introvated Henrik once remarked, "the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone." that statement could equally apply to Nora. Though long considered one of the world's first feminists, Ibsen didn't create her with the intention of writing a "feminist" play). Instead he felt A Doll's House was a play about self-liberation, rather than specifically female liberation; and so her "I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me."

Ibsen's canon is replete with instances of the individual vs. a provincial, narrow-minded society, of the right of the individual to fulfill his (or her) true self, often by escaping a difficult past and the restrictive rules of society. In Ghosts, motherhood is associated with powerlessness, and illustrates the tragic effect of the dumb acceptance of convention; in The Lady from the Sea, domesticity was equated with banality and boredom, and women's self-realization was entirely dependent on the attitudes of the men around them; and in Hedda Gabler, Hedda's efforts to find freedom are tragically and violently quashed by both the men around her and by the rules of her society.

The characters in Ibsen dramas often live in a general atmosphere of oppressive boredom and societal repression (Rosmersholm, Hedda Gabler, John Gabriel Borkman), reflecting the heartbreak of frustrated lives. Passionate lovers are dominated by their own bourgeois mentality (Hedda Gabler, Little Eyolf, When We Dead Awaken), women are trapped in unfulfilling marriages (Pillars of Society, A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, The Lady from the Sea, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman). The same basic character types and personalities crop up from play to play. The women were usually intelligent and passionate, but inhibited by convention; the men are arrogant and tend to destroy (or nearly destroy) the happiness of all around them, whether inadvertently or not. Many of these characters had wounded childhoods during which they were hurt, molested, or otherwise exploited. Thus guilt, unhappiness and alienation are prevalent, propelled by a spiritual emptiness and a false morality.

All this unhappiness, confinement and "anguish of the soul" (Peer Gynt), coupled with a predictable plot structure. Is it any wonder that Ibsen doesn't make for an evening of uplifting theatre. It's like watching Chekhov, or reading Dostoyevsky: well done, and probably worth the effort, but vastly depressing. And, disappointing, if, like me, you don't like being able to foretell the ending.

All this said, the "illusion" of Ibsen's structure is rendered quite literally in Mabou Mines' DollHouse. All the women, inclding Nora, are over six feet tall. All the men are cast dwarfs. And Death is taller than them all).

Nora (in a fantastic performance by Maude Mitchell) lives in a literal doll house—ostensibly for her children, but her husband Torvald (Mark Povinelli) fits the child-size furniture perfectly. Torvald sees women as childish, helpless creatures, but also grants them outsized power in the home, responsible for children's morals and purity. To be a woman in his world was to be confined, both literally (corsets, voluminous dresses) and figuratively. Nora does her best to fit his image of her. She speaks in a childish, breathy falsetto, she giggles and prevaricates, and she never stands upright in his presence—instead, she crawls, or writhes on the floor, granting him at least some modicum of physical power. Torvald calls her all manner of diminutive pet names, including "my dearest possession;" he's a condescending, patronizing ass. It's a wonder it takes her so long to leave, but then this family lives firmly rooted in illusion. Torvald's repeated suppression of reality, and his obsession with his home's appearance and reputation, lead directly to Nora's realization that she's been married to a stranger. In fact, his last words to her before she exits are "What will people think?"

Once Nora leaves, the doll house disappears, revealing a multi-level puppet show, in which Torvald and Nora are repeated ad infinitum. Their final discussion is sung, rather than spoken. Nora never actually slams a door. Instead, she strips (literally and figuratively), tossing aside all the trappings of her life as a doll.

This is a breathtaking production, revealing the full genius of director Lee Breuer (one of the founders of the American avant-garde theatre) and his company Mabou Mines. While it is three hours long, every moment is filled—with sight gags, with sounds, with fresh perspectives.

Sometimes a production can turn a classic play completely inside out and somehow reveal the play's true nature, which is exactly what happens here. Nora is rendered vital and modern, while we feel the true extent of her repression. It's simultaneously a deconstruction, parody and homage to Ibsen's classic, and plumbs depths of emotion I've never seen in any other production of this play which would normally be structured something like this:

We are introduced to an illusion— Nora has borrowed money from Krogstad and forged the promissory note. The money helped save Torvald's life, but Nora feels he can never know that she committed an illegal act to do it. A character who will destroy this illusion. That character is Krogstad. He threatens to reveal Nora's forgery to Torvald, unless she dissuades him from firing Krogstad from his position at the bank. This threat is followed by an attempt to bargain with the insurgent, but such an attempt by Nora fails and he sends Torvald a letter explaining Nora's treachery. This destroys the illusion and when the bargaining fails and Nora confesses everything to Torvald. Finally, there is a movement toward an ideal expressed by Nora's leaves.

While the Mabou Mines production follows Ibsen's script almost exactly, and yet it differs as follows:

Nora herself will eventually destroy the illusion, and on some level, she realizes this. In her attempt to bargain with the insurgent, she tries valiantly to resist the knowledge that her marriage is a sham and that she cannot consider herself to be a real person. When the bargaining fails, she is forced to confront the bitter truth, that she can no longer live a lie and so she leaves. Somehow, this progression feels truer, more accurate, though it is in fact happening side by side with the former interpretation.

I'm still not smitten with Ibsen, but I liked this production very, very much. It may be the only Ibsen production I've ever fully enjoyed.

For a review (also positive) of the earlier production, go here

Mabou Mines' DollHouse
Adapted from A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Lee Breuer
With Maude Mitchell (Nora), Mark Povinelli (Torvald), Kristopher Medina (Krogstad), Janet Girardeau (Kristine), Ricardo Luis Gil (Dr. Rank), Margaret Lancaster (Helene), and Hannah Kritzeck, Isabel Yourman, Sophie Birkedladen, Eilert Sundt, Jessica Weinstein, Eamonn Farrell, Ilia Dodd Loomis and Nic Novicki
Set Design: Narelle Sissons
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Costume Design: Meganne George
Sound Design: Edward Cosla
Puppetry Design: Jane Catherine Shaw
Choreography: Eamonn Farrell
Running Time: Three hours with one 15-minute intermission
St. Ann's Warehouse, 38 Water Street, Brooklyn; 718-254-8779
Tickets $35
Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 4 pm
February 12 through March 8
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on February 15th performance
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