O, Mabou Mines, what hath though wrought?
Or – overwrought?
Anyone who saw how the brilliant Mabou Mines production of Peter & Wendy at Arena Stage four years ago explored the melancholy roots of the Peter Pan story would have a right to expect that this production would open up Henrik Ibsen’s 132-year-old play, and make it relevant to contemporary audience.
Stories from other times and places require infusions of energy from contemporary artists to become themselves again – whether we are talking about David Ives’ revitalized script for The Heir Apparent or Molly Smith’s inspired staging of Oklahoma! What was original and shocking in Ibsen’s time is sometimes commonplace, even hackneyed, in our own. A Doll’s House needs a shock of energy from a real contemporary artist so that we in the audience can experience the shock of recognition when we see people like us on the stage.
But Mabou Mines DollHouse isn’t a shock. It’s an assault.
It’s an assault on every weakness, every cliché ever uttered in the original play. It is screeching and eye-rolling and winking and fourth-wall breaching and phony-sounding accents. It is neo-Brechtian vaudeville. It is a one-trick pony that rides itself to exhaustion.
It is the biggest waste of brilliant artistic talent – Ibsen’s and Mabou Mines’ – that I can ever recall seeing in a theater.
The bones of Ibsen’s story are there: the childlike-seeming Nora Helmer (here played by Maude Mitchell) lives with her overbearing, patronizing husband Torvald (Kristopher Medina; Mark Povinelli will play the role on the 22nd), who has just been named manager of his bank. She has a dark secret: in order to give her ill, overworked husband a year-long rest cure in Italy, she borrowed an enormous sum of money from Nils Krogstad (Nic Novicki; Medina takes over the role on the 22nd), forging the name of her dying father as surety. As it turns out, Krogstad now works for Torvald, who detests him and is preparing to fire him. Krogstad threatens to reveal Nora’s crime to her husband if Torvald goes through with it. There are two other characters whose stories intertwine with Nora’s and Torvald’s – Nora’s friend Kristine Linde (Janet Girardeau), who is to receive Krogstad’s old position, and the couple’s close friend Dr. Rank (Joey Gnoffo) who is suffering from a fatal disease.
Such a plot, if not played well, runs the danger of slipping into melodrama, but Mabou Mines takes it into that territory with gusto, and deliberate comic effect. If Ibsen’s script calls for Nora to give Dr. Rank a macaroon she has secreted because Torvald forbids such sweets, Mabou Mines has her take it out of a cavity in the behind of the rocking horse. If Ibsen’s script calls for Nora to send her young daughter out of the room because the scary lawyer Krogstad wants to talk, Mabou Mines has Krogstad snap and roar at the young girl (the brilliant, brilliant Hannah Kritzeck, a 16 year old actor) like a deranged pit bull. If Ibsen has Nora darkly contemplate suicide, Mabou Mines has her swoon all over the place, with wrist against forehead like a silent film heroine. And when Ibsen has Torvald say, in describing how a knitter’s hands move, “it has a sort of Chinese effect”, Mabou Mines has keyboardist Ning Yu flounce up in pretend anger and stalk in front of the stage, only to be coaxed back by the actors. (“It’s in the script,” explains Nora, or Mitchell.)
At the same time that Mabou Mines adds these special effects to distract us from the play, it ignores opportunities to illuminate the text for contemporary audiences. Early in Ibsen’s script we learn that Dr. Rank suffers from “consumption of the spine”; modern audiences might not know, as Ibsen’s contemporaries would have, that that particular diagnosis was often secondary to congenital syphilis. Without knowing that, the lines in which Rank blames his illness on his father’s profligate ways makes no sense. Yet not only did this production make no effort to explain Rank’s condition, I did not even hear the line in which Rank’s illness is named.
This being a Mabou Mines production, there are some astonishing, and brilliantly-realized, imaginative developments. I will tell you two of them: the entire set is a dollhouse, composed of miniaturized furniture, and the entire male cast, as well as Ms. Kritzeck, are very small people – dollhouse-sized actors. Why is this? “We find that the men are the same size as the children. Is this ‘dollhouse’ the world of patriarchy, the world in which a woman never fits?” co-adapter Lee Breuer asks rhetorically. “Here Ibsen’s feminism is metaphorically rendered as a parable of scale. The ‘dollhouse’ is a man’s world and only doll-like women who allow their men to feel grand can hope to live in it. Even the Norwegian accents are miniaturized; it is like the accents for the living dolls in Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World.’”
This tortured explanation, of course, employs exactly the opposite metaphor that Ibsen uses in the play’s close: it is the women who have been reduced to living dolls, manipulated by men like Torvald (who has a penchant for comparing her to small woodland animals) and her father. And it is hard to credit the deliberately-bad, distracting accents as an attempt to mimic Disneyland.
There are a half-dozen other unexpected creative acts in the productions, and they will take your breath away. The climax – which features beautiful operatic vocals from Mitchell and Medina – is absolutely astounding, and for once Mabou Mines plays Ibsen’s wonderful text straight. But these creative acts, as spectacular as they are, make no sense that I can discern, and I could not escape the uncomfortable sensation that some wisp of Wit had wandered into the last moments of the production.
Mabou Mines, which can – and has – used magic to turn storytelling into a sacred art, has here used prestidigitation to turn a wonderful story into a magic act.
Mabou Mines DollHouse has 2 remaining performances, Friday and Saturday, Oct 21 and 22 at 7:30pm in the Eisenhower Theatre, Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Mabou Mines DollHouse
Adapted by Lee Breuer and Maude Mitchell from A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen
Conceived and Directed by Lee Breuer
Produced by Mabou Mines at the Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission