Longtime avant-gardist Lee Breuer is one of those durable iconoclasts who inspires an almost reverential respect among his dedicated audiences. A co-founder of Mabou Mines, the New York-based experimental theater collective, Breuer has put his stamp on such celebrated shows as "Gospel at Colonus," a rich retelling of the death of Oedipus set to gospel music, and "Peter and Wendy," which employed puppets to deconstruct the story of Peter Pan.
First produced in New York in 2003, "Mabou Mines DollHouse," now at the Freud Playhouse through Dec. 10 as part of UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival, has garnered the typical critical accolades inspired by Breuer's work. But an hour or so into the actual production, one suspects that this emperor has misplaced his pantaloons.
Conceived and directed by Breuer, "DollHouse," which is based on Henrik Ibsen's watershed play, does not so much deconstruct its source material as dematerialize it. The conceit here -- and it is a visually striking, metaphorically apt one -- is that all the female characters are quite tall and all the male characters are portrayed by men no more than 4 feet, 2 inches.
As we watch these Amazonian women crouch abjectly before their diminutive masters, we take Breuer's fiercely feminist point. The problem here is Breuer's overall tone, a bizarre combination of melodrama and slapstick that seems grindingly, almost surreally sophomoric.
As Nora, Maude Mitchell flounces, twitters and chirps with manic intensity yet somehow manages to invest her character with a bracing believability. Given a more serious context, Mitchell might well have been a definitive Nora. Trapped in the amber of Breuer's artifice, she makes the most of her overblown turn. Mitchell is nicely counterbalanced by the assured, bitterly comical Mark Povinelli as Torvald, Nora's overbearing husband, an unwitting despot with a towering ego and a small soul.
The physical production is uniformly magnificent. As the play commences, lavish red curtains slowly unfurl, providing a dramatic backdrop for Narelle Sissons' child-sized dollhouse set -- a suitable milieu for Nora's enforced immaturity and constrained circumstances.
Excellent also are Meganne George's costumes, Mary Louise Geiger's lighting, Edward Cosla's sound and Jane Catherine Shaw's puppets. Eve Beglarian's original musical collage of Greig piano works, beautifully performed by pianist Ning Yu, effectively underscores the proceedings.
Despite the production's tonal shortcomings, Breuer's extraordinary visual sense serves him well. The final sequence incorporates tier upon tier of puppets that surround Nora -- now a towering nemesis in a story-high white gown -- as she rejects Torvald's tyranny. Though it does not quite suffice to change the goofy tenor to the pitch of operatic drama that is obviously intended, it's nonetheless a dazzling and memorable display.
Breuer's undeniably rigorous staging has other high points as well, and his able cast commits wholeheartedly to the generalized wackiness, complete with the kind of wild mugging, broad double-takes and leering sexuality more appropriate to Benny Hill than Ibsen. Casting around for a possible rationale, one could conclude that Breuer intended his production as an anti-intellectual manifesto, an audacious rejection of artistic pretension -- and indeed, on that level, it is strangely endearing.
Sadly, though, all the foolishness comes at the expense of any emotional connection to these characters and their dilemmas, and the fact that the play runs just shy of three hours makes for a long haul. Despite the bright trappings of this "DollHouse," it ultimately taxes our patience -- and our posteriors.
'Mabou Mines DollHouse'
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday
Ends: Dec. 10
Price: $42 and $60
Contact: (310) 825-2101, www.UCLALive.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes