Monday, October 3, 2016

Just in Time for Halloween: Bluebeard's Dollhouse

Halloween seems to be one of those truly polarizing entities with no middle ground - either you wait for it all year and dress to the nines, or you hole yourself up with Netflix and no lights, hibernating all month until the little ghouls have locked their costumes away. 

Photo by Kym Longhi
I tend to be of the latter camp (true confessions: I have never trick or treated in my life. Not ever), but this year I thought I should get out of my comfort zone. So it was a pleasant surprise to be invited to Bluebeard's Dollhouse, an innovatively staged new production from the Combustible Company currently being hosted at the James J. Hill House. After all, who could hate a show set in one of the most gorgeous historic mansions in Minnesota?

Located somewhere between Ibsen's A Doll's House and Perrault's (author of Mother Goose) instigation of the fairy tale genre (inspiring such writers as the Brothers Grimm), Bluebeard's Dollhouse is a mashup of the horrifying side of traditional fairy tales and the social problem play/novel of the late Victorian era. There are multiple iterations of the characters of Bluebeard, Nora and Thorvald, all of whom cross spaces and time and encounter each other in freshly disappointing ways. There is definitely no happy ending for Bluebeard's Dollhouse; each character has some form of misery that they inflict upon each other and themselves.
Photo by Kym Longhi
Pro tip if you attend this show: you must, and I mean absolutely MUST, do some research prior to attending. At a minimum, check out the Wikipedia listings for the texts the show is based on. The entire performance is out of sequence (and the audience is split into groups, so you can't count on fellow viewers to have the same order or experience as yourself) and characters use the same names for different actors, so it is imperative you have some shred of an idea what is going on or you will be totally lost. For those who are simply interested in the more macabre aspects of the story it may not matter and you can just show up, but if you want to understand what's going on you really do need to do a little research (or at least read through the program).

The performers have creepy vibes down pat, and they appropriately invoke the fall feeling. Unfortunately, however, I got a little lost. Individual performances were compelling and seemed on point as we went through each vignette, but I still somehow lost the greater sum of their parts. It is probably just because this isn't my favorite genre, but I had a hard time following the action and understanding how the characters related. This isn't necessarily the actors' fault, but it would have been nice to have a little more cohesion throughout the show or a little more plot line to really guide viewers through the action. I've read Ibsen and was raised on fairy tales, and I was still lost here and there.
Photo by Kym Longhi
That being said, the James J. Hill House is the perfect setting for this show and I'm glad the Combustible Company is finding a new way to utilize a historic space. It was really cool to be there after hours and enjoy the magnificent paneling and designs, and it definitely added a creepy factor and some necessary period context to the show.

Bluebeard's Dollhouse was a struggle for me but I think it's a perfect fit for horror movie junkies, particularly those who aren't up for something quite as terrifying as an annual trip to the Soap Factory. Even though I lost the story, I appreciated Combustible Company taking a risk and coming up with a totally original piece. It never hurts to add a gorgeous historic setting either. Bluebeard's Dollhouse runs for two more weekends - if you want to check it out, click here to get your tickets.