The power of secrets. Violence. Marriage. What scarier ways could there be to usher in Halloween?
I started my October off with the world premiere of “Bluebeard’s Dollhouse,” a new, promenade-style production that merges theater, dance, puppetry and live music, and takes place throughout St. Paul’s historic James J. Hill House. In this work, Combustible Company (formerly FTF Works), mashed up Charles Perrault’s murderous fairy tale “Bluebeard”— the story of a violent nobleman in the habit of murdering his wives and the attempts of one wife to avoid the fate of her predecessors—and Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”— the story of a 19th century woman who lives out that century’s ideal as dutiful wife and mother until leaving her family at the end of the play.
A lone man, his eyes darkened with make-up and his hand holding a single, lit candlestick, sang a mournful tune in Latin and stared at guests as they approached the massive, Gilded–Age estate on the evening of October 1st, 2016. I paused to enjoy the singing – the first of many musical performances that evening – and then made my way inside. Combustible Company had deftly set the tone for an ominous evening. After convening as one group for the pre-production speech, the whole audience was led into the foyer of the Hill house, where we watched a preamble play out on a grand staircase, winding staircase. About 10 minutes later, members of the cast separated us audience members into 7 or so smaller groups led us upstairs to the second floor of the house, where our journey continued.
Rather than sitting in one place the entire time, we audience members moved from room to room as “Bluebeard’s Dollhouse” unfolded around us. We were led in and out of six rooms twelve or more times, returning to several rooms once again to witness another vignette. The order of the experience differed depending on one’s assigned group, which was reassigned about three times over the course of the production (perhaps as a means to separate us from whoever accompanied us to the event?)
I am partial to immersive theatrical experiences. Beyond having attended the fan-favorites “Sleep No More” and “Then She Fell”, I have also produced three immersive productions and have performed in productions that fall within that artistic boundary. Of these, my favorite immersive experiences – whether as a viewer, producer, or performer – were successful In justifying everyone’s presence, giving guests a strong sense of agency, making time and space for independent exploration, incorporating a healthy dose of stillness to allow for audience members to register what they are experiencing, and creating compelling impetus for movement, especially the audience movement between rooms.
On the evening I experienced it, “Bluebeard’s Dollhouse” did not consistently allow me to decide how much action to consume or at what pace I wanted to consume it. It was all (literally) thrown at me. The pre-production speech invited us to follow or pick up things that piqued our interest, but there was never an opportunity to roam. Unfortunately, the few times I did linger behind my group, I was nearly immediately refocused by a costumed actor or stagehand.
My favorite parts of the production incorporated no, or very limited, text. Standout moments included a poignant duet that began with the performers seated in child-sized chairs and a weirdly thrilling moment when a performer aimed and nearly threw a dagger at my face. Many movement phrases signaled toward sexual violence and made me shrink back. Renee Howard’s doll puppetry was creative and captivating. It accompanied a monologue about that Howard delivered while seated a room reminiscent of a child’s nursery – perhaps her character’s playroom? (Howard was cast in the role of “Nora Child.”) As unsettling as it was to watch Howard twist and turn the limbs of an undressed baby doll, I was intrigued, at times even chuckling at the timing of those movements, how they corroborated the message I heard, and Howard’s depicted a sense of bewilderment throughout.
Above all, I was inspired to see artists and patrons who were willing to take a risk. I commend Combustible Company for choosing to present “Bluebeard’s Dollhouse” in a non-traditional format and am happy to see a Minnesota audience – a friendly but remarkably reserved bunch! – embracing the immersive theatrical style.