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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Today's theater directors love big gimmicks. But too often, once a stage auteur has set King Lear on a Spaceship, or Uncle Vanya in a cancer ward, there's not much else for the director to do. The big gimmick in the reworking of A Doll's House (now playing at UCLA Live!) is that the set is miniature size... and so are some of the actors. You see, in this version of Ibsen's classic drama, the men are all played by "little people."

This big--or small--gimmick works, strangely enough. Since Ibsen's 1879 play is often described as the first feminist play, seeing actress Maude Mitchell tower over the men in her life is an ironic--as well as effective--way to convey Nora's inability to fit into her closed, repressed society. But this visual metaphor is merely one of the director's tricks. What really makes Ibsen's play more immediate in this production is the simple use of music.


Today, when Ibsen's moral dramas are played straight, much of the time they seem contrived and melodramatic. Director Lee Breuer solves this by playing A Doll's House as pure melodrama. Not just by having the actors swoon and ham it up (which they do--and which they all do quite well) but by adding music throughout the play. Remember, the word "melodrama" originally meant "drama with melodies." And it was only after this form became antiquated (with the advent of more naturalistic performance techniques) that "melodrama" became a pejorative used to describe exaggerated acting and storylines.

A pianist accompanies most of the action is this Dollhouse, playing a collage of piano works by composer Edvard Grieg--a fellow Norwegian who was also Ibsen's peer (and on one famous occasion--the epic Peer Gynt--his collaborator). Grieg's romantic piano music a perfect soundtrack to the sudden plot twists and grandiose dialogue. It strongly evokes the Victorian-era and the melodramas Breuer is satirizing and the morals Ibsen was criticizing. The music sometimes prompts laughter--yet it's always clear that the director wants us to laugh. The production verges on camp, but the piano melodies also elicit real visceral reactions to the play's old fashion techniques. While Breurer and his actors--both big and small--make this a very postmodern A Doll's House, the emotions and ideas that Ibsen wanted to evoke are all there on stage.

Ibsen (who died exactly 100 years ago) loved to scandalize middle class audiences. So while he might not recognize his own hand in much of this version, titled Mabou Mines Dollhouse, some of it--like the strobe lights and midget nudity--would have likely given the playwright a thrill. Breurer's production may not be as shocking as Ibsen's text in what it says about today's--or even yesterday's--society; but it is shocking in its bold and often brilliant theatricality.

There are no dolls or midgets--nude or otherwise--in L.A. Opera's new staging of Hansel and Gretel, but there are two adults playing small children and lots of human-sized, stuffed animals. Written in 1893, Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel greatly resembles the old-tyme music hall shows Breuer's Dollhouse pays homage to. The syrupy operetta works best in small venues--especially marionette theaters--but Hansel and Gretel also holds a certain amount of potential for any director wanting to investigate the darker shades of Grimm's fairy tale about lost children who are tempted by a witch's candy.

In this revival, director Douglas Fitch unfortunately ignores the psychology of the story and spends his resources on creating theatrical eye candy: like a scrumptious gingerbread house, a real, flying broom for his witch and the giant, stuffed animals with glowing, fluorescent eyes. Humperdinck's operetta is harmless, light entertainment and this production emphasizes its tradition as a christmas confection. This seems to be earning Hansel and Gretel lots of applause from distracted holiday audiences; because if nothing else, it's an alternative to The Nutcracker--albeit one without dancing or memorable tunes.

Hansel and Gretel plays at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion until December 17; Mabou Mines Doll House runs at UCLA's Freud Playhouse through December 10.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.