Metaphors can be pinpricks or suckerpunches — and if you prefer your literary devices to leave you dazed, bruised, and bloodied, then hurry to St. Ann’s Warehouse to see a garish and absolutely stunning take on Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”
In a blunt reworking of the patriarchal gender roles of the Norwegian writer’s feminist masterwork, the experimental theater troupe Mabou Mines stages its “Dollhouse” entirely within a dollhouse where only the male leads — who are all played by little people — can fit.
Despite being the only regular-sized actors on stage, the female characters — who are treated like playthings by the diminutive dudes — are the ones that are out of place.
The heavy-handed metaphor is just one of director Lee Breuer’s many liberal reinterpretations of Ibsen’s play — like the introduction of musical numbers, puppetry, and the near-constant shattering of the fourth wall — but it stands out as the single most affecting change, as it continually forces the audience to realize that Ibsen’s society was not made for women.
And throughout the two-act romp, the audience has the pleasure of watching Nora Helmer (marvelously played by Maude Mitchell) come to the same conclusion.
In order to save the life of her husband Torvald (Mark Povinelli), Nora has committed forgery to borrow money from the conniving Krogstad (Kristopher Medina) — an employee at her husband’s bank. Nora must hide her debt from her self-important husband because the revelation that his whimsical, “featherbrained” wife took responsibility — and committed a crime — would shatter his world.
“Torvald is a very proud man,” Nora explains. “He would be humiliated to know that he owed anything to me. But I might tell him someday perhaps when I’m not so pretty.”
To make matters worse, Krogstad threatens to expose Nora if she can’t convince her husband to keep him employed.
The play follows the tumultuous unraveling of Nora’s secret and the flare-ups between a husband who considers his wife to be a flesh-and-blood Barbie, and a wife who growing to realize that her love for her husband is nothing more than make-believe.
But this dramatic arc plays out more like a comedy than a tragedy. There are kitschy fake accents (“joy” is pronounced “yoy”), crude sexual innuendos, and cruder onstage sex acts.
At any point when the audience is ready to forget the wee size of the male characters — who range from 40- to 53-inches tall — the actors emphasize their short stature with face-to-face conversations with kneeling women, and awkward love scenes where they are tossed around like footballs.
In one instance, Torvald himself seems to be onto the sight gag.
“Small? You think I’m small?” the pint-sized Torvald shouts at his obedient wife, who towers above him. “You called my reasons small, therefore I must be just that. Small.”
But when the curtain falls, “Dollhouse” is more than a brazen frolic — it’s a hard-hitting work that remains packed with social commentary.
Comparing “Dollhouse” to Ibsen’s original is like contrasting Greco-Roman wrestling with the WWF, but at the end of the day we all know which one is more entertaining.
“Mabou Mines Dollhouse” runs through March 8 at St. Ann’s Warehouse [38 Water St. between Main and Dock streets in DUMBO, (718) 254-8779]. Tickets; $35 to $55.