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REVIEW: Hill House Overrun by Disturbia in Bluebeard’s Dollhouse (Combustible Company)

Photo by Kym Longhi.

Although many things were doubtless envisioned when the James J. Hill House was constructed, a future as a go-to place for site-specific theatre was probably not one of them. Nevertheless, this Gilded Age mansion has taken on a new face at night as theatre companies increasingly explore its spaces. The current tenant, Combustible Company, has taken over the James J. Hill House through October 15th with Bluebeard’s Dollhouse.

Bluebeard’s Dollhouse combines characters from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the 19th-century drama about a seemingly comfortable middle-class woman’s disillusionment and ultimate departure from her place in society, and Bluebeard, the fairy tale of a mysterious nobleman with a secret locked room full of his previous(ly murdered) wives.

Under the direction of Kym Longhi (who also wrote the show in collaboration with the ensemble), Bluebeard’s Dollhouse occurs as a set of simultaneously performed vignettes throughout the three floors of the house. These scenes include lines performed from Ibsen’s original play, dance, music (some recorded, some performed live by ensemble members), video projections, mild puppetry, doll parts, caution tape, knives, keys, veils, and blood. Seven cast members share the role of Nora, Ibsen’s heroine, either as “Nora Crone,” “Nora Mother,” “Nora Child,” or “Nora Lover.” The four remaining cast members appear as either Bluebeard himself, Nora’s husband Torvald, or both.

Photo by Kym Longhi.
Photo by Kym Longhi.

Longhi’s mash-up seems more interested in introducing resonances and repeating themes rather than developing them past initial, perhaps superficial treatment (audience members get the gist about the interplay between the physical violence of being literally murdered by one’s spouse and the psychic violence of living only by socially proscribed gender roles from the program notes, or at least very soon into the production’s introduction). The reinterpretation of both source texts does stay primarily concerned with gender dynamics as experienced by upper-middle class white women, which is not in itself necessarily a bad thing. However, the casting of the whole ensemble as either Nora or Bluebeard/Torvald does suggest a kind of universality to these dynamics that one might criticize for erasing the ways gender inequality gets inflected by race and class as well. At the very least, it seems like a missed opportunity to push beyond Ibsen’s original observations and place them more firmly amidst our own contemporary concerns.

As a physical production, Bluebeard’s Dollhouse is ambitious in its scale and speed, and all in all it ranks a success. As an immersive theatrical experience, the audience moves throughout the house to observe the action, sometimes all together, sometimes broken up into small groups. For a show that relies so strongly on establishing and maintaining a specific tone throughout, there are so many ways that this could have gone wrong—yet, everything is so well synchronized, you are able to still wander from room to room with a sense of discovery and spontaneity, even though it must have been planned down to the second. The movement of the different pieces of the audience is as well choreographed as it is between actors, allowing a sense of urgency to the action without feeling like one is being herded around without time to think.

So well does this production establish focus and tone, it does not require a lot of previous knowledge to keep up with what is going on. The repeated and proliferating imagery and the commitment of each of the performers prevent any unnecessary confusion or disruption, and it also allows for the inevitably different reactions of the audience members to become part of the show. The darkened Hill House becomes the ideal haunted mansion, especially the first floor, which proves that any room with a story-high pipe organ is automatically terrifying. As one of the “Nora Lovers,” Pearl Noonan is the one to ultimately escape Bluebeard’s hellish structure and the untenable relation with Torvald, using the Hill House’s heavy front entrance for one of the most satisfying slams of Ibsen’s famous slamming door.

Combustible Company’s Bluebeard’s Dollhouse is inventive and enterprising, and is yet another example of the creative possibilities the Hill House offers for unconventional productions and dexterous ensembles. It is also certainly the most high-brow haunted house you’re bound to see this October.

Bluebeard’s Dollhouse plays through October 15 at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, MN.

Lydia Lunning