The following review is courtesy of Jim Bovino, Director of Flaneur Productions
Some thoughts on Mabou Mines’ DollHouse:
In 1878 Henrik Ibsen wrote:
There are two kinds of spiritual laws, two kinds of conscience, one in men and a quite different one in women. They do not understand each other; but the woman is judged in practical life according to the man’s law, as if she were not a woman but a man…. A woman cannot be herself in the society of to-day, which is exclusively a masculine society, with laws written by men
This was written while finishing A Doll’s House, which premiered the following year. Ibsen’s most immediate philosophical and political statement, A Doll’s House dramatized the spiritual and existential destruction of women living within a patriarchal system.
Mabou Mines affirms Ibsen’s original philosophical position, but extends and problematizes it by casting actors of short stature in all of the male roles. What results is a literalized vision of universally arrested development; while outwardly exerting control, the men in this production also suffer under the weight of their own crippled system. They seem either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge their condition of moral and ethical truncation, committed to ritualized power and the status quo as children clinging to mother. Indeed the men in Bruer’s dollhouse seem preoccupied with the womb, suggested by the enveloping red curtains and nursery room set design, fiercely holding on to a sense of security and comfort and infantilized by a dependence on the maternal order of a literally miniaturized world created and maintained by women on their behalf. A row between Nora and Torval early on ends with an enforced silence. Torval then comments on how “ cozy and peaceful” their house is. This refrain is heard throughout the action.
The very pregnant maid Helene telegraphs the status of the inhabitants of this dollhouse as not yet born morally or ethically, and creates a profound dramatic tension through this imminence. When Nora and Torval’s dear friend Dr Rank dies, this tension is somewhat relieved as he is enveloped in Helene’s arms and carried off-stage, perhaps to be finally born. This masterfully sets up the denouement, but in the end it is Nora who is born.
There are moments of intense physicality that become almost slapstick. Rather than resulting in comic effect, it becomes a grotesque physical awkwardness, further literalizing the notion of these people as children not yet adept at their bodies’ mechanics. Nora crawls around the stage, simultaneously reducing herself to her husbands stature and suggesting an inability to manage the demands of her adult body.
This is a production at once grand in its ambition and modest in its scope. Conceptually it attempts to unpack the subtext of Ibsen’s script, literalizing its emotional content while remaining philosophically consistent with the original. The casting of actors of small stature in the roles of oppressors recalls Nietzsche’s assertion that the strong must protect themselves from the weak. When those in positions of power are ethically or morally diminished the result is a general contamination of social conditions. Indeed the small men are still in charge.