Academic journal article Ibsen News and Comment

Bluebeard's Dollhouse

Academic journal article Ibsen News and Comment

Bluebeard's Dollhouse

Article excerpt

Combustible Company

James J. Hill House, Saint Paul, Minnesota, October, 2016

Editor's Note: The author of this account, William Banks, served as dramaturg for the production.

Among the more encouraging developments of our troubled new century has been the emergence of what is arguably a new form of staged theater. In some respects this is entirely natural, as playwrights and directors attempt to find a way forward in a dramatically changed media landscape, increasingly dominated by technologists. That ours is in its essence an Age of Distraction largely goes without saying; one need only look to the particular lexicon of the technologists themselves: "augmented reality," "environmental storytelling," "attention tracking." That such a bewildering media environment constitutes a new kind of threat to the viability of the stage play is obvious not only within the theater itself, but also in our classrooms. Who among us, after all, has not struggled to divert the attention of our students from their screens? To paraphrase Marx in one of his rare lyrical moments, what chance has Ibsen against Rockstar Games?

In the effort to adapt to changing conditions, many directors have found new possibilities in established theatrical concepts, breathing new life into site-specific, immersive (or promenade) theater. Their generous employment of all the ancillary forms made available by our age- film and video, music both recorded and performed, sophisticated lighting and sound effects-recalls the Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk. In crafting this approach, which might be termed the "new immersive theater," these directors have in effect begun to reclaim for the stage many of those very same technological innovations which, the more bullish of technophiles insist, ought to be sounding the death knell of the stage play itself.

Since the breakthrough 2011 success of Punchdrunk's Sleep no More, an immersive reimagining of Macbeth staged in a Manhattan warehouse, directors have continued to push the boundaries between the traditional stage play and the video game- see here in particular Rift's interactive adaptation of Kafka's The Trial as well as Punchdrunk's own The Drowned Man, both staged in London in 2013. Given this international groundswell, it was only a matter of time before Ibsen would receive a similar treatment. To the delight of the theatergoing public of the Twin Cities, such a production was mounted in October of 2016 in the shadowy expanses of Saint Paul's James J. Hill House, an original work entitled Bluebeard's Dollhouse, written and directed by Kym Longhi, founder and co-artistic director of the Combustible Company and a senior teaching specialist at the University of Minnesota Department of Theater Arts and Dance.

Bluebeard and A Doll House

In addition to the growing impact of interactive storytelling upon the contemporary theater, directors have also begun to explore the possibilities of another aspect of digital culture. Much of the appeal of Sleep no More must be attributed to its gestures toward postmodernist intertexuality (or, as the millennials like to say, the "meta"); critics and attendees were particularly intrigued by its cinematic references. Bluebeard's Dollhouse is in this sense qualitatively distinct from its predecessor, for Longhi's production takes its cues from a wholly different corner of contemporary popular culture. As its title suggests, Bluebeard's Dollhouse is properly understood as an example of "mashup art," a form with considerable roots in twentieth-century art history that, as Paul Miller has argued, has only reached its full aesthetic potential in the digital era. In wedding Perrault's tale "Bluebeard" and Ibsen's play A Doll House, Longhi has remounted these iconic narratives in the form of the new immersive theater and in so doing, has crafted for the stage the very kind of totalizing experience the Virtual Reality visionaries have long prophesied. …

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