nytheatre.com review by Nicole Bournas-Ney
February 14, 2009
In their adaptation of A Doll's House, Lee Breuer and Mabou Mines attempt to take Ibsen's seminal work both forward and backward in time simultaneously, staging what can only be called a post-feminist melodrama. For the most part, the company does an excellent job of creating a unified and compelling production, but occasionally this challenge causes the production to lose its balance.
The first of the dual conceits of this production is playing Ibsen's iconic realist work as an utter melodrama, the very style of theatre that Ibsen rebelled against. The second conceit is visually demonstrating the feminist issues in this work by casting the female roles (Nora, Kristine, Helene) with women are who all just shy of six feet tall, and the male roles (Torvald, Dr. Rank, Krogstad) with actors who stand around three feet tall, and setting the play in a literal doll's house which is much too small for the women, unless they walk around on their knees.
The cast of this production is stellar, successfully navigating Ibsen's intentions, the conventions of melodrama, and a strong post-feminist sensibility. The cast really operates as an ensemble, so it would be almost impossible, and almost unfair, to try and single any of them out, expect perhaps for Maude Mitchell, whose Nora is the lynchpin of the production, and who gives a really excellent performance both as the timid, desperate "little squirrel" of the first act and the empowered, naked woman of the second act who sings the final scene's "feminist anthem."
The weakness of this production is its very long first act. An hour and 40 minutes of overblown melodrama and grating (and intentionally fake) Norwegian accents just seemed to go on and on without any shifts in motivation or tone—most of the action seemed to occur in the same emotional "place," as it were. It is altogether possible that Lee Breuer and the rest of the creators of this production are trying to have the first act mirror Nora's phony, unrelentingly static existence, but if this is the case, that intention is not clear enough, and the unvarying action serves to draw you away from what's transpiring on stage.
The power of this production really comes both from a very strong cast and a terrific second act that seems to actually be driving, purposefully (and in a short period of time), to the very particular moment of Nora's "door slam heard around the world" (although in this production there is no door actually, but instead a curtain which slams down with a metallic clang). Here Mabou Mines takes the full potential of its high concept and creates a devastating finale that, as Nora stands among red velvet curtains, stripped bare (both figuratively and literally), transforms her statement and subsequent action into a societal tidal wave, way beyond the reaches of Torvald or any individual man, for that matter.
This production is worth seeing, if for no other reason (and there are many other reasons), than to experience a jaw-dropping example of how much an artist can change a play, and explore his or her own vision, while barely changing the original text at all. Seeing a bald and nude Nora talking about women's self-sacrifice with the familiar line, "Thousands of women do it every day," certainly alters, in an exhilarating way, the traditional identity of Ibsen's play as a staple of classic Western drama.