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theater of the absurd

Shocking Ibsen Adaptations: A Brief Chronicle of Gimmickry

Playwright Henrik Ibsen built his career on shocking the bourgeoisie with extreme realism. More than a century later, it takes a lot more than nihilistic honesty to needle the audience — which is why slathering Ibsen in gimmickry has become a favorite sport of the avant-garde. Mabou Mines’s highly succesful DollHouse, which has just returned to St. Ann's Warehouse after a world tour, features “5-foot-9-inch women being dominated by 3-foot-5-inch men.” Here we break down DollHouse and six other infamous adaptations according to their gimmicks, justifications, and what the critics decided about them.

Production Gimmick Justification Critics Said
Peer Gynt, Braham Murray, Royal Exchange, Manchester, U.K., 1999. Ibsen’s unusually fantastical play, about a long journey filled with trolls and hallucinations; here the trolls wear evening dresses and Peer is on a cocaine binge, with cameos by Tony Blair, Hitler, Michael Jackson, and a mummified Margaret Thatcher. "No play which contains trolls is without problems." —Susannah Clapp, London Observer "The question is why, with such exceptionally good performances gluing the play together, is this production only fitfully engaging?" —Lyn Gardner, the Guardian
Hedda Gabler, Ivo Van Hove, New York Theater Workshop, 2004 Shabby furniture and taped-up cabinets stand in for Hedda’s luxurious home; Hedda, played by Elizabeth Marvel, sports ankle tattoos and gets doused in tomato juice. Van Hove: "People can love my work or hate it. If they hate it, at least there's something there to hate. I'm not going for middle of the road." "The chilly moral of Mr. van Hove's eye-opening production is that there's a little bit of Hedda in all of us." —Charles Isherwood, New York Times
The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen, the Neo-Futurists, New York Fringe Festival, 2005 Twenty-six mini-plays — both final scenes and summaries — of all the Ibsens: Condiments have sex, people die but keep talking, and — most surprisingly — some scenes are played straight. "The kitsch factor is very high in the New York fringe, and it really does help to have some sort of hook." —Gregg Allen, founding director of the Neo-Futurists "With such raw material, even the most well-balanced theatergoers might race for the closest bottle of schnapps. But Allen's smart, goofy, half-insane and wholly snow-blinded homage to the playwright is a better tonic." —Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times
Fucking Ibsen Takes Time, Carbs and Dairy, New York Fringe Festival, 2005 A single drawing-room mash-up of Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, A Doll’s House, and The Wild Duck that has Hedda killing the duck. We refer you to the title. "This is not a hilarious concept. In a [Fringe festival] with not one but two Ibsen spectaculars, one can at least be ruled out." —Helen Shaw, New York Sun
Heddatron, Les Freres Corbusier, HERE Arts Center, 2006 Androids abduct a Michigan housewife and force her to perform Hedda Gabler; five real robots portray actors. "At the time [the play] was pretty radical and we thought that a good way to represent that in a modern context is to have those people who are in a different world be portrayed by robots." —Producer Aaron Lemon-Strauss "Much is forgiven when someone — or something — is cute." —Marylin Stasio, Variety
Speed Hedda, the Fabulous Monsters, LaMaMa, 2001 A 90-minute drag production set in the sixties, featuring Hedda in Chanel-type fashion saying things like "Everything I touch turns to horseshit in my hands." "The tradition of cross-dress pageantry encompasses everything from Catholic priests in flowing robes to kabuki theatre, and goes all the way back to ancient Babylon. It's primary yet still taboo to an extent." —Director Robert Prior "All wigged up with nowhere really to go." —Brian Parks, Village Voice
DollHouse, Mabou Mines, St. Ann's Warehouse, 2003 and 2009 Not only does this Nora live among doll-size furniture and puppets; all the men in her world are four feet tall or shorter. "Ibsen's patriarchy is an illusion. Nothing attacks that illusion better than 5-foot-9-inch women being dominated by 3-foot-5-inch men." —Director Lee Breuer "No one can pretend to know what Ibsen would have thought of the work, but one hopes he would have been moved." —John Coulbourn, Toronto Sun
Photo: Courtesy of St. Ann's Warehouse