Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Seeing Dollhouse again at St. Ann's

This weekend I visit St. Ann's Warehouse to see Mabou Mines' Dollhouse. I'd seen it once before, when it was first at the theater. I I had been working on a show in the neighborhood myself, Lysistrata, and the actors often came by the bar where Lysistrata was performing. The men were all little people, so I noticed them. And I had absolutely loved Peter & Wendy, which Mabou Mines had produced year before.

I brought someone with me who hadn't seen Mabou Mines' work, so I was nervous that the premise of having little people in the men's roles would turn out to be gimmicky or offensive. It turned out to be profound. The whole production was highly stylized, starting with Maude Mitchell's performance as Nora, full of odd vocalizations. Yet it was an incredible characterization, and everything, I felt at the time, served to illuminate the text. When the end came both of us were in tears.

I went again this last weekend with some friends, including the woman who had seen it with me the first time. We both talked up the play as one of our most incredible theater experiences ever. As it happened, Lee Breuer, the director (whom I know slightly) came and sat next to us right before the play began. Right before the lights went down, Lee mentioned "There are a lot of changes since you saw it last."

He was right. There were.

It's been five years, so I'm not sure what the changes were, exactly. And I didn't want to ask Lee afterwards. Because I missed the last production so much.

If you happen to read this, Lee, I want you to know that you've given me some of the most profound theater experiences I've ever had, and I'm grateful for that. But I have to be honest - for me, seeing it a second time, the magic had gone. And my friend felt the same way.

What had happened? Was it simply that the second time could not match the first? Did familiarity lessen the effect? Was it an off night? Possibly.

But I can say what seemed to happen, for me. The jokiness suddenly outweighed the profundity. There were too many winks to the audience, too many breaks in the fourth wall, too much shtick. I felt as if during the five years the production was traveling across the world, you and the actors got bored, and kept adding stuff. It is a hard temptation to resist, I am sure. Each moment seems so funny or clever when you think of it. You know the stagehands, so you want to give them their own bit. And the stage manager. And..and...and...

The ending, too, was lacking in a moment I seem to recall so clearly from last time. The moment Nora changes, the first one, where she spoke downstage, or maybe slightly offstage, in a tone like we'd never heard before. It was then that I cried. But that moment now seemed to be subsumed inside the next. Maybe you had decided, seeing it again and again, that it was cleaner to cut the moment altogether. But for me, as an audience member, it was needed.

I've never lived with a show in the way you must have lived with Dollhouse. But I wonder, is it possible to keep a show running that long while maintaining a director's eye? Or is there simply a point where one knows a show too well, where it becomes impossible to see it the way someone would see it on their first (or in my case second) time.

One friend who had never seen it before said he liked it nonetheless. And I'm glad. There's a lot to be said for the production, even with alterations.

But I still long for the show that lives in my memory, the one that I love.

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