So exactly how “out there” is the fever dream of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” by the avant-garde troupe Mabou Mines? The one with small actors (roughly four feet tall) as the play’s domineering men lording it over their comparatively large women?
“Mabou Mines DollHouse,” on the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Stage, is not altogether as bizarre as it sounds, but it is a bit of a circus. Some of the elements are pretty arresting, like the stripping and groping between 19th-century Norwegian characters who typically only arch eyebrows at one another. Or the giant governess, 10 feet tall, who appears in a nightmare to Nora, the wife who famously walks out on her stifling household in Ibsen’s revolutionary 1879 play. Or the leading lady lip-syncing opera. In the nude. With a chorus of puppets.
Still, the extravagant theatrical vocabulary doesn’t work against “A Doll’s House” so much as underline it. The overbearing patriarchy Ibsen dramatized? Check. See the women compliantly on their knees in order to see eye to eye with the imperious, self-important men. Ibsen’s plot, thick with imminent doom? Check.
Director and conceiver Lee Breuer puts the melodrama in overdrive. Huge shadows are cast by Mary Louise Geiger’s footlights-heavy design, and when disgraced clerk Krogstad arrives to blackmail Nora to keep his job at Torvald’s bank, actor Nic Novicki turns on Maude Mitchell’s helpless Nora with nicely hammy villainy. The acting is turbocharged across the board, and it’s fueled by consistent underscoring, with dramatic music played live by Ning Yu on an oversize keyboard embedded in the stage.
“Enough melodrama!” barks Torvald, Nora’s husband, late in the evening. Kristopher Medina delivered this as a winking joke to the audience Thursday night, and the meta-gag got a laugh. Then the hyper-melodramatics continued to rev along.
Breuer’s flamboyant eye for reworking classics recently got him hired to stage the first American play at Paris’s Comedie-Francaise. (The freewheeling result, a version of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” that came at New Orleans by way of Japan, prompted a cease-and-desist letter from the Williams estate.) This “DollHouse,” which Breuer adapted with Mitchell, isn’t a travesty; Ibsen’s story line and much of his dialogue are intact. But it’s not exactly an eye-opener, either. The high-contrast theatrics don’t necessarily pay off in fresh insights; the most jarring moment may be when Nora suggests that Torvald, who doesn’t like Krogstad calling him by his nickname, is being small. (Does Medina bristle? You bet.)
The biggest tradeoff comes in Mitchell’s depiction of Nora. She takes the character’s nervous twittering to the max, flitting about the stage nonstop and delivering her lines in a girlish squeak, like she’s sucked the helium from a balloon. All Noras are hardworking; it’s a huge role, with a mountain of anxiety to scale. But surely few have ever labored like Mitchell, who strides and crawls among the toy furniture of Narelle Sissons’s doll-house-scaled set, chirping all the way.
The effort is heroic, and it amplifies the idea of women as tireless performers in a constricted world. The nuance and cold truth of the climax, though, are overwhelmed by a finale in which Breuer and Mitchell swap Ibsen’s intimate reckoning for flag-waving social emancipation. That’s how Ibsen’s drama has been viewed through the years, of course, but the elaborate spectacle diminishes the personal cost.
The three-night run of this long-touring production — a lively eyeful, and a brisk challenge to the conservative tone that still characterizes Washington theater — concludes Saturday, with slightly different casting: Medina will play Krogstad, and Torvald will be played by Mark Povinelli, the actor who created the role for this risky fling.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
Adapted from “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen. Conceived and directed by Lee Breuer; adaptation by Lee Breuer and Maude Mitchell. Costumes, Meganne George; puppetry design, Jane Catherine Shaw; sound design, Edward Cosla; choreography, Eamonn Farrell. With Janet Girardeau, Joey Gnoffo, Jessica Weinstein, Hannah Kritzeck, Sophie Birkedlalen, Eilert Sundt and Ilia Dodd Loomis. At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theatre on Saturday at 7:30 p.m .