The Dresser loves to look at process so she sampled two plays heavy on how story was told. On October 20, 2011 at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, she experienced Mabou Mines DollHouse--yes, that is the official title for the adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play Et dukkehjem, which the English-speaking world knows as A Doll's House--and the next night, on October 21 at DC's Studio Theatre, she partook of Alan Bennett's most recent play The Habit of Art. Both are comedies built on emotionally serious loads.
The quick profile: Mabou Mines DollHouse, complete with an oversized piano keyboard and live pianist at the front of the stage, is like avant-gardist Laurie Anderson meets Harriet Beecher Stowe's Simon Legree whipping Uncle Tom. The Habit of Art is Alan Bennett meets Monty Python.
As to the serious--the living doll of DollHouse--Nora (Maude Mitchell)--throws off the shackles of a husband (Kristopher Medina as Torvald Helmer) who has minimized her (the last scene is a whopper opera spectacle that makes Nora's rejection of her husband nakedly literal) while the known and unknown artists of Bennett's play, poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten and the thespians who play these roles, confront end-of-life issues as they try to continue to do their creative work.
Both plays live in the Post-Modern consciousness--or should the Dresser say self-consciousness--of plays that keep reminding the audience that they are watching a play. DollHouse works on a fantastic (as in fantasia) version of the 19th century melodrama where characters lack psychological depth. For director-playwright Lee Breuer, the brains behind this masterful adaptation of Ibsen, the two-dimensional landscape of this storytelling is ratcheted up by the women being twice the height of the men who are real life dwarves (the preferred term is little people) and by pervasive traditional and non-traditional puppetry. Nontraditional puppetry included the lowering of beautifully sculpted curtains set to a musical score, the lowering and release of large white panels with written messages, a cuckoo in a clock, the balletic lifting of little people and children by stage hands dressed in black.
The Habit of Art is a play within a play where the lines blur between the old actor Fitz (Ted van Griethuysen) and his part as the elderly poet Auden in a play entitled Caliban's Day. Separate stage realities show Fitz rehearsing the role of Auden versus Henry (Paxton Whitehead) as an initially unintroduced, still youthful Britten working with a boy soprano (Sam O'Brien) on the composer's last opera Death in Venice. On top of this are the visits of Auden's biographer (Cameron Folmar as Donald who plays Humphrey Carpenter) and Auden's rent boy (Randy Harrison) as well as the struggles going on between the stage manager Kay (Margaret Daly), the assistant stage Manager George (Matt Dewberry), the playwright of Caliban's Day and the actors, who have gathered in a rehearsal room of London's National Theatre.
Both plays present their challenges for American audiences in understanding the lines that are being delivered. DollHouse goes for a patois that mixes in a few simple Norwegian words: takk (thank you), nei (no), and ja (yes) along with broken English with a Norwegian inflection. Also, Nora effects high and low voices (reminiscent of what Laurie Anderson does with her electronically altered voices). Nora's voices indicate her submissive wife personality versus her awakened self. Although a subtitles marquee was operating on one side of the stage, the Dresser could not make out the words from her rear orchestra seat and was happy enough with her own ability to hear and understand the words. The Habit of Art, being a drawing room comedy suitable for a small theater like Studio's Metheny Theatre, indulges in that British repartee that goes by fast and includes references that are unfortunately unfamiliar to most Americans. Take, for example, the mention of Spitting Images, a British television show running 1984 to 1996 that used puppets to satirize British and American politics. The Dresser would have missed this reference had not her seatmate brought it to her attention. However, these kind of references inhibited understanding and while there were people laughing at what the Dresser's seatmate called secret code for the in-crowd, there were those who tipped-toed out of the theater or did not return after the intermission. And by the way, this happened in the Eisenhower Theater too where many seats previously occupied for DollHouse were empty after the intermission.
Did the Dresser enjoy Mabou Mines DollHouse? Yes. It was funny how Breuer took lines from Ibsen like "What are little people called that are always wasting money" and used them to create a new way to present a ponderous and dated old play. Did the Dresser enjoy The Habit of Art? No. Not even the talking furniture poetry amused her and especially not the randy and scatological patter. The Dresser admits she has never gotten into Monty Python. Would she go to other productions by playwrights Lee Breuer and Alan Bennett? Yes. She likes experimental theater and she loves the intimacy of British theater. While she knows and likes such plays by Bennett as The History Boys and The Madness of George III, this was her first experience with Breuer.
In Philip Metres poem "Oil Rig Origami," the poet constructs a paper model of an oil rig that fell down. In both Mabou Mines DollHouse and The Habit of Art, things put on paper cause the protagonists much angst. In DollHouse, Nora is being driven crazy by the promissory note that her lender holds. She borrowed money to take her husband on a life-saving vacation and she forged her father's signature. The lender Nils Krogstad (Nic Novicki) who works for Nora's husband threatens to reveal her indiscretion if she does not help him keep his job. In The Habit of Art, Fitz is having trouble remembering his lines and suggests to the stage manager that he would like to hold a book while he talks. Kay says she knows he just wants a crib sheet, but she assures him that he can learn his lines. Then there is that blank page that both Auden and Britten face as writers.
OIL RIG ORIGAMI
[On February 15, 1982, the supposedly unsinkable
oil rig Ocean Ranger came down in the Grand
Banks off Newfoundland when a wave punctured
a porthole killing all 84 crew members.]
Its platform twice the size of a football field,
[fold here] solid as the Parthenon, held
by eight massive supporting columns [fold here],
still could not save it in the storm [fold here].
One who survived a different rig collapse:
"I felt my insides were made of paper,
very white paper. I would walk slow, in case
in case something might rip inside." [Fold here]
Warning: this is only a paper model.
In Galveston TX, [fold here], you can go aboard
and see what it's like to work on a real
drilling rig. You can visit the living quarters,
mess and rec rooms, [fold here], control board,
engine room [fold here] [fold here] [fold here]
from Ode to Oil
Copyright © 2011 Philip Metres
Photo of Maude Mitchell and Kristopher Medina in Mabou Mines DollHouse by Richard Termine
Photo of Ted van Griethuysen and Randy Harrison in The Habit of Art
by Scott Suchman