Tackling oppression with a striking visual vocabulary, a new incarnation of an Ibsen masterpiece forges an entirely new understanding of the concept in theater.
“Mabou Mines DollHouse,” a reconstructed production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Dollhouse” opens tonight for a limited engagement of three performances at the University Theater as part of a whirlwind tour of the northeast following a wildly successful, OBIE winning New York run. This production is fifth in a series of Mabou Mines avant-garde classics that have garnered rave reviews from New York critics. The collaborative theater group was founded in 1970 and has since produced over 50 original works and adaptations. Founding member Lee Breuer, who directed this production, has toyed with the power dynamic by casting all the male roles with actors under 5 feet tall while the females all stand around 6 feet high. These exaggerated figures all inhabit a set that reconstructs a large-scale doll house on stage.
The plot follows the struggle of the young couple Nora and Torvald Helmer in late 19th century Norway. Ibsen’s original work was revolutionary in its time for its presentation of women in the nascent stages of feminism during an era in which there was only one divorce in all of Norway.
Breuer borrowed from conceptual art to create a new vision for Ibsen’s classic, which he characterizes as a post-modern view for a post-modern world. Taking an ironic view and creating a silent film feel with an piano soundtrack along with the stark casting choices help make the work accessible to a modern audience, he said. It also heightens the melodrama inherent in the original work by mining the comic moments made more visible with this visual lexicon.
“I feel that people who would think it goes too far don’t understand what the intent is,” Breuer said. “One has to build a bridge to the present.”
Sabina Ahmend ’06, who recently directed a production of the modern feminist classic “Fefu and her Friends,” said the production’s concept sounded fascinating. She said she thought the physical differences in size would effectively dramatize and highlight Ibsen’s concern with the power dynamic between his characters.
Instead of trying to tack a concept onto the work, Breuer and his collaborators have tried to rely on the original work and discover what characterized the work during its time. Although it has strong feminist overtones, he said it wasn’t extremely radical for the time.
“Ibsen wrote a kind of Times best seller; he wasn’t 100 years ahead of his time — he was 10 years ahead,” Breuer said. “It was the feminist anthem of its time — the YMCA of feminism.”
When asked about the controversy at Yale surrounding an article claiming that Yale women were forgoing careers in favor of motherhood, co-adapter Maude Mitchell, who plays Nora, said she believes that is reflective of how deeply modern western women have been co-opted into a patriarchal idea of womanhood. As a self-proclaimed old-school feminist she believes that the modern distorted understanding of gender relations damages both women and men.
Describing how she perceives the state of today’s young women, she imitated “Oh yes, being in Playboy! That would actually affirm my sexuality.”
Then she cited a line from the original text showing what she sees as Ibsen’s deep understanding of the effect of co-option.
“You played with me just like I was your doll wife … and I liked it.”
Women in America no longer realize the extent of their subjugation, she said. Referencing the number of “A Dollhouse” productions around the world, including Venezuela and Pakistan, Mitchell said Nora is not simply a symbol for female repression; instead, she represents all varieties of oppression.
Mitchell also emphasized the importance of Nora’s husband Torvald’s journey because it represents the experience of the dominating social group, which can be just as instructive.
Mark Povinelli who plays Torvald, said the play as explores a second form of human relations in its casting of little people in powerful, dominating roles. As an actor he has normally been relegated to character roles in the classics, but he said creating a fully realized portrayal of humanity is this role has been one of the rides of his life.
“There is a tremendous sociological exploration into little people and people of difference and how they fit into the structure of society,” he said. “It’s a rare chances for an audience to see an actor who is 4 feet tall be funny and sexy and charming … they’re being shown, finally, a fully-developed human manifestation of what I’ve been living my whole life.”
Taking a unique perspective on a well-worn classic, “Mabou Mines DollHouse” seeks to challenge the reigning status quo, undermining conventional modes of dominance and superiority one performance at a time.