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May 23 will mark a century since the death of Norwegian modern playwright Henrik Ibsen, the second most performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare. In honor of this anniversary, the Israel Festival is presenting a revival of his play A Doll's House by the New York-based avant garde Mabou Mines theater company.
A Doll's House was originally a pro-feminist melodrama that plumbed the hypocrisy of Victorian society. Critics have called this revival of one of Ibsen's signature plays, "the most outlandish Ibsen production of all time." It restates the message of the play in a way that makes it as relevant and groundbreaking today as it was in 1878.
Director Lee Breuer - one of the founding members of Mabou Mines - collaborated on the adaptation with Maude Mitchell, who plays Nora. Brought to life by successive generations of fine actresses, the meek and sexy heroine is forced to walk out on her husband and children in order to be recognized as an individual.
"Maude's line," says Breuer, "was 'how many women have felt that they had to make themselves small to make their men big?'."
The actors intone thick Norwegian accents in this tragi-comedy, with a piano constantly playing Grieg's Piano Concerto. The joke here, says Breuer, is that when Grieg worked on Peer Gynt with Ibsen, he swore he would never play with him again. The set for the play is a real doll's house, in which the furniture is kindergarten-sized and the overly tall heroine must cram herself into it ("to be cut down to size").
Breuer reverses the "physical balance of power" by having little people, approximately four feet tall, play all the male roles. Their stature signifies the stunted and small-minded nature of convention, says Breuer.
True to the original period of the play, Breuer;s stage resembles a red velvet-curtained old world theater. Nora wears the same Victorian clothes as a doll that sits on a chair on stage and whom Torvald kisses when he enters, before he kisses his wife. It is clear, however, that "men are the real dolls," says Breuer. "The roles are completely reversed in a very comic way. The power of patriarchy is a cultural illusion. The women's contrasting size visually translates the exaggeration of the societal roles accorded them as either saints or sinners. The women must get down on their knees to allow the men to appear taller."
"We see the bullshit through the smallness of the men. It is all an illusion, a myth perpetrated by the underhanded economic deal in which men support and the women play the game. It is a tragedy for the men too, as they are supposed to play the big game. Both sides are trapped in it," says Breuer.
For Breuer, "little people" are today oppressed in the same way women once were. He refers to their situation as "a new political movement that has developed in the last 10-15 years, identical to the that of women in the 19th century." For Breuer, "the development of the credibility of little artists follows the credibility of women. This is a wonderfully precise way to understand what Ibsen was confronting."
Despite his small size, Torvald exudes pure sexual virility, making clear the sensual nature of the relationship between him and Nora.
In a twist that proves reality is stranger than fiction, when the play premiered in Oslo to wonderful reviews, Ibsen's 85 year-old grandson was in the audience. As it happens, he is also a little person, at 4 feet 11 inches.
"When I do a political work," says Breuer, "I like to find a way to make a political point without talking politics. Usually, I like to accomplish that by making a visual statement."
Other political works by Breuer with Mabou Mines include Gospel at Colonos, an adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonos, which takes place at a Pentecostal African-American church service using rhythm and blues. In A Doll's House, says Breuer, "the politics of scale create a distancing effect. I converse with postmodernism. My directing is based on what I call 'balanced oppositions,' like two trays on a scale. Victorianism creakiness versus cynical modern subtext." Mabou Minesâ€š revival of A Doll's House, is produced by Sharon Levy, who has worked with Breuer for two decades. It began as a New York Theater Workshop in 2002 with borrowed costumes and a gift of $1,200. "Money ran out after the staging of Act I," recalls Breuer.
Six months later they were invited to perform at the Sundance Theater with Peter Dinklag (Station Agent) in the role of Torberg. In 2003 it premiered with Mark Povinelli (Stone & Ed, Pucked, Polar Express) as the male lead (Dinklag had a previous engagement). TV actor Nic Novicki will play Torberg in Israel. Since its official 2004 European premier at Der Welt Theater in Stuttgart, the avante-garde version of A Doll's House has been acclaimed in Paris as best foreign show and received best directing, best acting and best touring show awards across the US.
The play is presently on tour through 2007. After Israel, it will carry on to Hong Kong, the Brisbane Festival in Australia, travel back to the US for six weeks, and on to Madrid in September.
"Feelers are out for Manchester, Edinburgh and London," beams Breuer, "and we're talking to Toronto and Montreal."
Dolls House performances as follows: May 23, 8:30 p.m., May 24, 8 p.m., Holon Theater; May 26, 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., May 27, 9 p.m., Jerusalem Sherover Theater. In English with Hebrew subtitles. Rows 1-6 recommended for English-speakers.