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Lee Breuer 'Comes Home' to Moscow with 'Dollhouse'

A poster advertising "Mabou Mines Dollhouse" at the Maly Theater affiliate. John Freedman

Lee Breuer’s production of “Mabou Mines Dollhouse” has played all over the world since it opened in New York in 2003, winning awards and acclaim along the way, but after the second of three performances in Moscow on Saturday, the director said for him it was a homecoming.

“Bringing this show to Moscow is like coming home because I’m part Russian. It seems very comfortable to be here with this show,” he said at a postshow banquet at the Maly Theater affiliate.

The three-day residency of “Dollhouse” in Moscow is not the first time Breuer has been in the Russian capital. In 1998 he brought two productions — “Hajj” and “The Gospel at Colonus” — to the third Chekhov International Theater Festival. This spring, he was in Moscow briefly with his wife Maude Mitchell as they traveled through Russia conducting master classes in various cities. If all goes as planned, Breuer will direct a show this time next year in Saratov — at present there is talk of Sam Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class.”

“Dollhouse” is an often bracing, often hilarious and always eclectic and hectic show that turns Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll House” on its end. This 19th-century tale about a woman finally coming to the realization that she cannot live as her husband’s pet possession anymore is performed in an actual doll house that is erected before our eyes after the show has begun. It ends in an opera house with the liberated, and nude, wife Nora singing her final words of defiance as a theater full of puppet spectators looks on in shock and amazement.

Much has been made of the fact that the men, as well as Nora’s daughter, are performed by little people and are thus towered over by the women. It is a bold, I would even say brash, move on Breuer’s part, and it was clear that many in the Moscow audience on Saturday were shocked by what they saw. Aside from the usual linguistic and cultural problems of shows performing abroad (“Dollhouse” was accompanied by text-heavy and inconsistently timed supertitles), there was a sense at the Maly’s affiliate that people were afraid to laugh when the show reached its funniest peaks.

Playwright and translator Sergei Task, who attended the final show on Sunday, pointed out that there was a noticeable lag in the laughter as the audience waited for the text to come up on the screen over the stage.

But this show “stunned” Task “like no other he could remember.”

“It’s amazing to think that Breuer is the first director to do this play in an actual doll house after 130 years,” he added. “It entirely renews the play.”

One aspect that could not possibly reach Russian spectators without English was the exquisitely bizarre Norwegian accent that all the actors employed. Breuer, discussing that after the Saturday show, called it a “Disneyworld accent.”

“Nobody talks like that,” he said. “You remember Peppie LePeu’s French accent in the cartoons? This is our Norwegian version of Peppie LePeu’s French.”

What the audience did appreciate, judging by the long curtain calls, was the extraordinary work of the actors.

Mitchell, who received an OBIE award for her performance of Nora, puts on an astonishing display of acting. Always in motion, always working nuances with her voice — from squeaky, little girl pouts, to very adult howls of despair — she seems to have choreographed every one of her minuscule gestures, twists and turns.

The men in Nora’s life — her imperious husband Torvald (Mark Povinelli), her sympathetic admirer Dr. Rank (Ricardo Gil) and her evil tormentor Nils Krogstad (Kristopher Medina) — were superb, as was the 14 year-old Hannah Kritzeck, who played her nimble and rambunctious daughter.

Sharing the confusion and frustration at being a woman in a man’s, man’s, man’s world (to borrow a phrase from James Brown’s great song) was Janet Girardeau as Nora’s friend Kristine.

At the banquet, Breuer addressed the topic of his casting little people in his show. “This play was the first statement for women’s rights in the 19th century,” he said. “We have included a new movement in our show. The little people’s movement began 15 or 20 years ago. We hope that our show is a step forward in showing the potential power of little people in the world.”

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