There are few things more exhilarating than the work of a theatrical imagination operating at full throttle.
That’s what is on display in “Mabou Mines DollHouse,’’ and that’s why you might briefly have the sensation of floating, rather than merely walking, as you leave the Cutler Majestic Theatre, where “DollHouse’’ is playing through Sunday.
Directed by Lee Breuer and starring the astounding Maude Mitchell as Nora, “DollHouse’’ conjures an otherworldly aura by taking one of the most familiar settings in all of dramatic literature - the outwardly cozy but deeply troubled Helmer household of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House’’ - and transforming it into an actual dollhouse, complete with tiny chairs, a rocking horse, a pint-size Christmas tree, and a doll clad in a blue dress identical to Nora’s, with blond tresses like hers.
The male characters in this production by Mabou Mines, the legendary experimental theater troupe, are played by little people, including the excellent Kristopher Medina as Torvald, Nora’s pompous and overweening husband. The entire cast performs with exaggerated, stylized gestures, like actors in a silent movie, even as they speak an abbreviated, fragmentary version of Ibsen’s dialogue. (As in the silent-film era, there is piano accompaniment throughout, by Susan Tang, who plays pieces by Grieg from her perch at the front of the stage and who amusingly interjects herself into the action at one point.)
A spectral figure on stilts (played by Jessica Weinstein with uncanny agility) materializes in a phantasmagorical dream sequence. The climactic showdown between Nora and Torvald is enacted as an operatic duet, performed in front of an audience of nodding puppets who are arranged like the C-list celebrities on the old “Hollywood Squares’’ set. Oh, and there’s a doozy of a surprise at the end that adds an intriguing final twist to the gender dynamics we’ve been watching play out all evening.
All in all, what transpires inside and beyond this particular dollhouse makes it hard to ever look at Ibsen’s drama in quite the same way again.
Which, I suppose, is the point. “A Doll’s House,’’ which premiered in 1879, traces the slow but irreversible awakening of a woman who up till then has been subjugated, even infantilized, by Torvald and the all-controlling patriarchy he represents. In notes he jotted down a year before writing “A Doll’s House,’’ Ibsen observed: “A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.’’
To emphasize the artificiality of the persona Nora must construct in that social context, Mitchell’s movements are those of a wind-up toy. She squeaks, giggles, pouts, flutters, and swoons; she even sucks her thumb at one point. Much of the time, she is on her knees, shrinking herself to fit into her husband’s world. Her Nora speaks in a breathy, baby-doll voice, sort of a cross between Jackie Kennedy and the jazz chanteuse Blossom Dearie. When she eventually shifts to a dead-serious lower register, the impact is subtly jolting, a vocal correlative to the famous slamming of the door that concludes most productions of “A Doll’s House.’’
While Breuer and Mitchell hold a cracked mirror up to Ibsen, the essence of his plot is intact. Torvald, the head of a bank, is about to fire an employee named Nils Krogstad (Nic Novicki), a former school acquaintance of Torvald’s, whom the banker despises for his supposed ethical shortcomings. One problem: A while back, Nora secretly borrowed money from Krogstad to pay for a sojourn abroad that Torvald needed for the sake of his mental health. Moreover, she had secured the loan by forging bank documents. Now Krogstad is threatening to reveal Nora’s secret to her moralistic, debt-abhorring husband, unless she convinces Torvald to spare his employee’s job.
But maybe Krogstad’s heart can be softened by his renewed acquaintance with Kristine (Janet Girardeau), a friend of Nora’s with whom he had once been romantically involved? Another sort of love, the unrequited kind, is also in the air: Gloomy, consumptive Dr. Rank (Joey Gnoffo) is determined to tell Nora of his passion for her before he steals away to die, leaving cryptic aphorisms in his wake.
That the male characters in this “DollHouse’’ are portrayed by little people is not a mere gimmick. The visual disjunction when Torvald is lording it over Nora, calling her “my little squirrel’’ in his moments of affection or making her cower in his moments of anger, helps to underscore the absoluteness of male power - that it does not rest on physical stature or strength - and its absurdity.
That point is italicized when Nora picks Torvald up and cradles him like a baby, and later, when she carries him across the room. The adaptation of Ibsen’s text by Breuer and Mitchell substitutes the word “small’’ for “petty’’ when Torvald is telling Nora how much he despises the overly familiar way Krogstad addresses him. “These are such small things,’’ Nora says, to which Torvald responds with seething fury: “You think I’m small?’’
This is the last chance to see this extraordinary production - not just here, but anywhere. After performing it around the world for eight years, Mabou Mines is shuttering the dollhouse for good.
In a fall season that has already included “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ at the American Repertory Theater and the Huntington Theatre Company’s “Candide,’’ it’s hard to say that “Mabou Mines DollHouse’’ is the event of the year. What can be said without much fear of contradiction, though, is that this is a good time to be a Boston theatergoer.