Mark Povinelli and Maude Mitchell in Dollhouse(Photo © Richard Termine)
Mark Povinelli and Maude Mitchell in Dollhouse
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Henrik Ibsen's influential drama about Nora Helmer's social awakening is published under two different titles, A Doll's House and A Doll House. That little apostrophe makes a monumental difference: The first version of the title suggests that the heroine owns the house she keeps, while the second indicates that society has taken away her human identity and her ownership rights. Director Lee Breuer's treatment of the play, starting with the cheekily condensed title Dollhouse, goes a step further in implying that men are the real dolls in houses ruled and maintained by women.

In the play as Ibsen wrote it, the male characters function almost as Nora's puppeteers. Torvald Helmer, a bourgeois banker living in fin de siecle Norway, has his "little squanderbird" wife under such control that she feels she must defend herself for having saved his life: In raising enough money to send her husband on a health retreat, Nora has put herself in debt to Torvald's nemesis employee Nils Krogstadt, who threatens to reveal her forgery of her father's signature if she can't talk her husband out of firing him. Pulled between her husband's disapproval and Krogstadt's blackmail, Nora is like a marionette trying to escape her strings.

This production finds clever ways to reverse the metaphor. The men here are "dolls" on an almost literal level because the radical decision has been made to cast dwarves as the male leads. A stagehand illustrates this point outrageously by puppeteering a player during one scene, and set designer Narelle Sissons stresses the image with a pastel dollhouse designed to the men's proportions. Torvald and company strut comfortably through the main entrance and lounge on miniature furniture while the women crouch awkwardly and squeeze two at a time onto a child-size sofa. This is a man's world only in the sense that the women are too big for it.

Nora can physically dominate Torvald and restrains him from opening the mailbox that contains the incriminating evidence. But most of her power comes from her cunning and her sex, as when she seduces Dr. Rank to gain a lifetime servant; in a pinch, she asks the doctor for a favor and prefaces her request with a breathy remark about her flesh-toned stockings. The strategy is dominance through submission, as Nora's friend Kristine Linde demonstrates in a steamy scene toward the end of the play.

The center of this patriarchy lies in the women's willingness to feign subordination. For Nora, the masquerade is more than a party that allows her to dress in her finest clothes: It's a way of life. Sly auteur Lee Breuer finds the masquerade at the heart of Ibsen's drama and uses this theme to support a self-conscious style of presentation that lies somewhere between opera and comedy of manners. Musician Ning Yu plays a gorgeous piano score adapted from the melodies of the great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg; "tragic" music sometimes punctuates bits of melodramatic dialogue for comic effect, but this is done with such skill that it's never obnoxious.

The actors ignore the rumor that Ibsen fathered realism and give stylized performances that are well crafted for the most part. As Nora, Maude Mitchell has been directed to deliver her lines in a coy, squeaky voice that sometimes makes her sound like a Norwegian version of Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors. Breuer's slightly retooled script delights in the dollish cadences of Nora's Scandinavian accent and takes particular joy (or should I say "yoy?") in the soft pronunciation of the letter "j." Ultimately, Mitchell turns what could have been a tedious device into a funny routine, yet the actress is even more impressive when she's allowed to unleash her natural voice.

Mark Povinelli is an excellent Torvald. An actor with a large emotional range, he's as fierce as he is vulnerable, and he displays a great command of comic shtick. In a clever deconstruction of the villain, Kristopher Medina's Krogstadt enters the house in a top hat that forces him to duck when coming through the doorway. At one point, Ricardo Gil's Dr. Rank slides a small bed into the house as a present for Nora. These actors handle jabs at their height without a grain of self-consciousness. As if to defy any criticism of Breuer's approach, Povinelli turns Torvald's line about his wife's dancing into a droll comment on this production: "Strictly speaking, it overstepped the proprieties of art."

Maude Mitchell and Ricardo Gil in Dollhouse(Photo © Richard Termine)
Maude Mitchell and Ricardo Gil in Dollhouse
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Speaking of impropriety: Actress Margaret Lancaster is a riot as the maid Helene, cast here as an pregnant woman who struggles to carry a tray before her swollen belly. Honora Ferguson's Linde is an aging and bitter alcoholic who wears a witch's hat to the masquerade, while Dr. Rank dresses as the Pope. The parents of the young actors Tate Katie Mitchel, Zachary Houppert Nunns, and Matthew Forker are troupers, to say the least, for allowing their children to play the Helmer kids in this production.

Martha Clarke heads the show's team of choreographers; movement and dialogue keep time with the music, leading to an unhurried but deliberate performance. That leisurely pace combined with a literal interpretation of the text makes every line clear -- sometimes too clear. In one instance, the lights rise in time with the line "Aren't you ashamed now that the lamp is lit?" This technique alienates the audience from the emotional life of the characters, perhaps with a deliberate nod to Brecht, even as it draws us closer to the dialogue. Mabou Mines makes more bold choices within one line of this production than most companies make in an entire show.

As for the play's dramatic conclusion, suffice it to say that no door slams in this adaptation; Breuer's alternative is too difficult to describe and too rich to spoil. It might be described as obscenely self-indulgent, but this Dollhouse is an opera. During the final moments, the performance loses all sense of time and place as the characters strip to their emotional cores. We discover that high drama is sometimes found not in action but in a change of consciousness.