When Nora Helmar slammed the door behind her and walked out of her husband's home in Ibsen's A Doll's House, the reverberation echoed through the succeeding century. Since the play's premiere in 1879, generations of feminists have drawn inspiration from that act of rebellion. Did you know that one of those women was Barbie?
The delightfully twisted vision of Nora in Barbie's Dreamhouse is the central image of Doll, a new production from Theater Couture, playing through November 19 at PS 122. The high-camp company has come up with equally perverse juxtapositions on previous occasions: Charlie's Angels working for Charles Manson (Charlie!), for example, or the tabloid story of drag queen Dorian Corey, who had a mummified corpse in her closet crossed with Edgar Alan Poe (Tell-Tale). This time, Ibsen's classic is dragged kicking and screaming into the next century decked in the trappings of Mattel's popular plastic toy. "There's going to be some serious pink!" promises Erik Jackson, the playwright.
"This is Barbie pre-Liberation," explains Jackson, who also penned Charlie! and Tell-Tale. The idea, he reports, came from the show's director, Joshua Rosenzweig. "He sees Barbie as the first independent woman," Jackson continues. "This woman was doing her own thing in the 50s and 60s. She was single, she was a stewardess, an astronaut, and a beauty contestant. She owned her dream home and had a dream car. Sure, she saw Ken--but only occasionally, when the mood struck her!"
Nora/Barbie is played by a man, and the notion of a drag queen taking on the classic role of an oppressed woman who finds independence and freedom is very much in keeping with the off-kilter aesthetic of Theater Couture. In fact, Jackson wrote the part specifically for the company's artistic director, Keith Levy, aka Sherry Vine, a well-known drag personality on the New York downtown scene. "I think Sherry is the Carol Burnett of this generation. She's a great kook, and we thought it would be a fun opportunity for her to step into Barbie's shoes," says Jackson. "Actually, in the show, even when she takes off her heels, she continues to walk around on her toes like Barbie." In Jackson's version, Nora also has a cord attached to her back. Whenever she gets rebellious and doesn't conform, her husband, Torvald, pulls on the string. One tug and he can get her to spout the things he wants to hear--usually phrases culled from popular movies featuring oppressed women.
Ibsen may not quite recognize this Doll, but Jackson says he has hewn very closely to the structure of the original. "I read a ton of translations, took pieces of each as a springboard, and then created this Frankenstein monster of A Doll's House," he explains. "I mostly opted for the most confusing and archaic translations, and transformed them with my own language." His bastardized version is full of anachronisms and contradictions; the characters seem to think they are in the 19th century, but artifacts from the next century--e.g., cell phones and vacuum cleaners--keep appearing in their world.
Jackson has also revised some of the plot details to suit the times. "In the original play, the crux of the matter is Nora having forged a signature in order to borrow money. That's just not as horrible in 2000 as it was in the 1800s, so I had to raise the stakes a little," he says. In his version, Nora's transgression has occurred in Amsterdam's red-light district. The playwright has also created a truly dysfunctional family for Nora and Torvald: their son, Butch, is a Satanist and her daughter, Nellie, is a mute.
"I began to realize that drag can be very powerful when I started writing for Theater Couture," Jackson continues. "From the very beginning, the instant artifice lets you break free of theatrical conventions. It's fun to imagine these characters who are already creatures outside nature." Additionally, the actors are often showbiz personalities in their own right. For instance, Sherry Vine, the character created by Levy, is well known to drag aficionados. "She is a down and out ex-showgirl with a heart of gold; a nice, bubbly girl that someone once described as Barbie on crack," remarks Levy, laughing. Jackson happily allowed Sherry Vine to bleed into Nora Helmer. Others in the cast of Doll include David Ilku (best known as one of the Duelling Bankheads), who plays Nora's husband; club impresario Maria Diaz, who plays Nils Krogstad, Nora's blackmailer; and trans-gendered club celebrity Candis Cayne, who plays Nora's school friend Linde.
Theater Couture was co-founded 8 years ago by Levy, who introduced Sherry Vine to New York in the inaugural production The Bad Weed, a mutant hybrid of the movies The Bad Seed and Reefer Madness. The company is now run by an artistic triumvirate consisting of Levy, Jackson, and director Rosenzweig. Over the years, Theater Couture has organically developed a distorted aesthetic that gleefully mixes drag, pop culture references and strong feminist sentiments.
The company also excels at producing stylish and glamorous productions on minuscule budgets. "It's ramshackle creativity--garage sale chic," says Jackson proudly. The technical credits for the current production include sets and lights by Kevin Adams (represented off-Broadway recently by Stupid Kids and The Donkey Show) and costumes by David Dalyrmple, whose rip-away clothes for Britney Spears caused a sensation at the recent MTV awards. Another key contributor is puppeteer Basil Twist, creator of the underwater fantasy Symphonie Fantastique. A master at creating magical illusions out of the most basic materials, Twist's past work for Theater Couture includes the vision of Charlie the Tuna in Charlie! and the mad ballet of cleavers and body parts in Tell-Tale. For Doll, he has created two puppets to represent Nora's surly, deeply disaffected children.
In describing the company's work, both Levy and Jackson cite the influence of Charles Ludlam. "By the time I reached New York, Ludlam had passed away," says Jackson, "but I got to know his work from seeing the tapes at Lincoln Center and Everett Quinton's revivals, and from reading all of Ludlam's texts and essays. He was not afraid to throw the trivial next to the substantial; I love the roller-coaster idea of throwing quips, alliteration, and groaners right next to a wrenchingly emotional scene. I like to describe Doll as a collision of highbrow and lowbrow. We have taken this almost sacred text and twisted and wrung it for all it's worth."
Jackson says he'd like Theater Couture to follow Ludlam's example and restore the status of camp. "Nowadays," he says, "the word 'campy' serves as a dismissal. Camp has been ruined by people who are too eager to elbow you in the ribs. I do think there is an art to it. I think it should be affectionate; you should respect the thing you are skewering.
"Above all," Jackson continues, "I hope our work is clever and smart. We want people to be entertained. You get into Theater Couture's world, you are transported somewhere else for an hour and a half, and then you get popped back into New York. Hopefully, you have laughed and grown and been offended--and, maybe, enlightened. Then you move on with your life. We don't ask for much!"