In Lee Breuer’s avant-garde staging of Henrik Ibsen’s landmark “A Doll’s House,” Nora — the wife who famously walks out on her husband — practically has to crawl to look up at him.
That’s because the actor playing Torvald is less than 4 feet tall. In “Mabou Mines Dollhouse,” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for three days beginning Thursday, all the men are played by “little people” (the preferred term). And the women are big enough to literally scoop these men up.
That striking casting isn’t the only reason that Alicia Adams, vice president of international programming and dance at the Kennedy Center, suggests audiences will be “surprised” and “provoked.” The intensely non-realistic piece rarely slacks off in its challenges: Breuer includes puppets by acclaimed puppeteer Basil Twist, juices up the melodrama, uses toy furniture, and risks nudity and sex scenes. At one point, an opera threatens to break out.
And the text is practically all Ibsen.
Yet the hallmark of this production, which has toured internationally on and off since its 2003 New York premiere, is unquestionably the radical casting. The bold visual hook — big women, little men — makes it impossible to miss Breuer’s point, which he says was also Ibsen’s in 1879: Men inevitably have the upper hand.
“It’s a hilarious image,” Breuer says of the size gap he has added to Ibsen’s still-towering drama about sexual politics. “It’s virtually a cartoon. And yet, at the same time, it’s tragic because it [masculine domineering] works.”
The 74-year-old Breuer, a MacArthur fellow and co-founder in 1970 of the experimental troupe Mabou Mines, has a long record of aggressively re-orienting classics. He’s probably best known for the mid-1980s production “The Gospel at Colonus,” which came at Sophocles by way of the black Pentecostal church. Four years ago, Arena Stage presented Breuer’s late-1990s puppet-driven “Peter Pan” adaptation, the deeply alluring “Peter & Wendy.”
The notion for Breuer’s “Dollhouse” sounds mischievous — a long-standing desire, he says by phone from New York, to make comedy out of a high drama. He pilfered the idea after seeing Bertolt Brecht’s production of “Coriolanus” long ago; in that show, the play’s authority figures were undermined by the casting of little people.
Another influence was the conceptual-art scene when Breuer was establishing himself in New York, working as a delivery boy for galleries. “We were the help,” he says. “But the help that got to go to the parties.”
Hanging out with subversive artists who gave their works sly, punning titles had a lasting effect. “I’m interested in a theater that shows its metaphor, rather than speaks its metaphor,” Breuer says. “If you can’t look at a play and see what it says, it’s a little bit of a failure.”
In one respect, the concept for “Dollhouse” is unquestionably as groundbreaking as Breuer hoped it would be. Little people in the great dramatic parts: “It’s just never been done,” says Mark Povinelli, who has played Torvald since the show was first in workshops.
Povinelli is 3 feet 9 inches tall. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children and has a career in movies and TV. He recently played Kinko in the film “Water for Elephants,” just finished shooting the upcoming Julia Roberts “Snow White” project and will be a regular in “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” the Chelsea Handler-derived comedy arriving this season on NBC. The Silver Spring native started in theater — he appeared in the 1996 Shakespeare Theatre Company production of “Volpone” — but scoring a big classical stage role is unprecedented.
“It’s what I always dreamed of doing,” Povinelli says from Los Angeles. “I wanted to break the mold, break stereotypes.”
The button-pushing “Dollhouse” production has received a certain amount of push-back over the years. Headlines have been skeptical: “Shrunk in the wash,” blared a British paper. Some audiences have posed “dirty questions,” Breuer says, about sex and little people during post-show talk-backs. And the issue has loomed about whether “Dollhouse” exploits the little people it hires.
Povinelli has no qualms. “I’ll tell you if I’m being exploited,” he says.
What unnerves some people, he says, is the unflattering way he’s seen on stage as he browbeats Nora, along with the frank sexual attraction the couple shares. “It’s so rare, if ever, that you see a little person in a sexual relationship that isn’t really randy or a complete joke,” says Povinelli, who reports that a lot of the roles that get tossed his way are mere sight gags. “That you could be unlikable or sexual or any of the things that make you fully developed — that’s when it becomes uncomfortable. When you’re asked to see me outside of the box you want to put me in.”
He adds, “I kind of like that.”
Maude Mitchell, who plays Nora, wonders why the show’s critics always rush to the defense of the little people, rather than the women. “I’m the one who’s on my knees,” she says.
Mitchell also says that she might not take some of the risks that her creative (and real-life) partner Breuer asks for in this show if not for the camaraderie of the little men she works with and the example they set. “They’re very brave just to walk down the street, which is always an event for them,” she says.
Even admiring critics have called Breuer “megalomaniacal” for this brazen overhaul of Ibsen, and the director’s tone gets weary when asked about his reputation as “the bad boy of avant-garde theater,” as the Village Voice once put it. Abroad and in rarefied pockets of American theater, his stock is pretty high. Commercially, though, it’s been a rocky career, with opinion divided about whether Breuer is a genius or a fool.
But he makes no apologies — in fact, he makes great claims — for this show.
“There have been three or four or five around,” Breuer says, “and I’ll put our ‘Dollhouse’ up against any of them as being more informative. More incisive. And a better production for our time.”
Oct. 20-22 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600, 800 444-1324 or visit kennedy-center.org