Valley of the Dolls
Be careful what you wish for. I'd been looking forward to watching DollHouse ever since its maiden production in 2003, back when I was an undergraduate in New York, cramming for my third-year finals. Four years later, the fabled showcase, directed by the renowned American avant-gardiste Lee Breuer, arrived at my very doorstep, thanks to the good people of the Singapore Arts Festival, and I was granted a press ticket, oh joy.
So finally, I have watched DollHouse.
It gave me a headache.
What I anticipated to be merely an innovative retelling of Henrik Ibsen's classic play, A Doll's House, turned out to be a pleonasm of eccentricity - a carnival of the imagination so rich in stylistic flourishes that I could not grasp the heart of the production.
Naturally, I'd been informed of Breuer's controversial decision to cast dwarf actors in all the male roles, playing alongside very tall actresses. While such a decision might be dismissed as a sideshow gimmick, it's ultimately a very effective move in staging this protofeminist work - it highlights the absurdity of patriarchy, literalising the dynamics of the 19th century realist play in which prideful, small-minded men attempt to control and dominate strong, great-spirited women.
Plenty of justification exists in the text, really - size is referred to over and over again, in the leitmotif of the dolls, as well as in the manner the protagonist Nora is being constantly belittled by her husband Torvald, who refers to her as his "little skylark" or "little squirrel". At one point, he even rages impotently at her when she tries to make him change his mind, claiming that by making light of his decision, she is dismissing him as a small man. Breuer's also had the fortune to cast very strong dwarf actors to play these roles - Mark Povinelli, Kristopher Medina and Ricardo Gil hold their own against women who tower over them, often making us forget their size through the force of their acting.
So the body types of the actors did not turn DollHouse into a circus act. Unfortunately, almost every other creative decision did.
Actors twittered their lines in exaggerated Norwegian accents (imagine The Muppet Show's Swedish Chef speaking two octaves up) and climbed on their hands and knees through doors and into cardboard boxes in mid-conversation. Dialogues were liable to explode without warning into acts of dry humping on the toy furniture - the reconciliation scene between Krogstad and Mrs Linde took place in the midst of fervent irrumation and cunnilingus. Act one ended in a dream sequence of satyrs, masquerade demons and confetti; Act two ended with stroboscopics and colossal sheets of cloth falling from the flybar, stitched with dialogue, while the pianist banged out the tarantella for Nora's dancing lesson. Act three closed with an oratorio-style declamation of the responsibilities of modern woman by Nora and Torvald, each singing while stripped down to bare-assed suspenders and corset as the curtains lifted to reveal box seats of porcelain Victorian marionettes re-enacting their couple dynamics; upon her farewell, Nora went topless in more ways than one, discarding both her corset and her wig to reveal a bare scalp.
It was a carnival of noise; just too much noise - although to be specific, what bothered me most was that I could not find a still moment where I could begin to take the characters seriously, where I could start to empathise with them. This is Nora's very problem: her inner strength is a secret from her husband, for it is by acting silly and helpless that she is able to manipulate him into doing what is wisest for the family. In the text, the depths of her intelligence and self-sacrifice are revealed in conversations with Mrs Linde, in the dramatic irony as we see the true motivations of her coquettish actions - but when every single line is played in a state of infantile insanity, the drama of Nora's soul is lost; the play has no voice; Ibsen's absent.
How I longed for Breuer to allow the text to breathe; for the characters to exhibit a determined focus, just as his fellow New York avant-garde director Anne Bogart advocated at last year's Arts Fest, in a lecture following her stellar Death and the Ploughman. Bogart demands of her own productions, "Why do I want to do this play now?" - and perhaps that's a problem with this play; the feminist message of A Doll's House is no longer an urgent message to communicate today; a post-post-modern reimagining of it throws up little more in the human condition to discuss.
Am I missing something? I fear I may be missing something, because so many smarter people than I have praised this play. Am I being conservative? Though an avowed proponent of subversion and experimentalism in theatre, I might simply be shell-shocked by the sheer overload of theatrics one experiences in this play.
After all, regardless of their aggregate effect, each individual creative decision was terribly clever and well executed. One triumph I'll record is the entry of Jessica Weinstein on stilts as the family Nurse - with impossibly long white hair, she loomed over Nora as her protectrix, a greater woman than her. And the moments of self-reference were terribly droll - Torvald and Nora looking meaningfully at the audience after he cries out, "No more melodrama!". Or when Torvald sits on a pair of knitting needles and toys with them as joss sticks, mocking them as having a "sort of Chinese effect", prompting the Chinese-American pianist to stand up and leave her keyboard in protest - until Nora cries out, "Ning, please, it's in the text!" Oh, we laughed at that.
It really is terribly difficult to assess a play that one admires for its ambition and respects for its legacy, yet which inspires not delight but heavy eyelids and tension in the temples in the viewer. Really, I haven't seen anything like this, a play with such high production values but that lulled me to semi-sleep, since The Finger Players's First Family last year, and that had flaws which were easier to identify. Here, I feel like there's a prize wrapped in wonderful layers of fluorescent packaging, only it's three hours gone and so far everything's been brilliant surface and nothing's actually been substance.
One image lingers - final scene: Hannah Kritzeck, in the role of Nora and Torvald's daughter, Emmy, silently riding a rocking horse with a toy sword thrust in the air. Kritzeck is a blonde 12-year old dwarf actress who has no lines but appears in scenes doing the odd handstand and frolic; I cannot easily tell during performance if she is an adult dwarf or a typically-bodied child but I keep (guiltily) trying to guess.
The girl is acrobatic and disturbing and inscrutable and distracting and full of talent. And she says nothing.
Just like this play.
(The doll does not leave its package.)
Mabou Mines's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's protofeminist play A Doll's House is a true festival of imaginative eccentricity - not only are all the male roles played by midgets and the female roles played by six-foot tall women (providing for some remarkable dynamics of power play), but there's also some prodigious use of puppetry, stilt-walking, shadow-play, stroboscopics, operatic recitative, bare-assed eroticism, extra-textuality, confetti and interminable high-pitched twittering artificial Norwegian accents - in fact, it's such a crazy, playful cornucopia of theatrics that I could not take it seriously; I could not feel for Nora as the protagonist, and at times felt exhausted by the sheer weight of the fripperies. Still, it's indisputably a work of magnificent creativity, acclaimed and enjoyed by many - go see it and tell us what you think.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /