Sunday, February 4, 2007

Invidious Casting

Can the casting of roles be invidious? At first glance, it appears that, race apart, the notion of offensively unfair discrimination cannot, perhaps must not, apply to casting. (I leave aside the question of race, which, it seems to me, is at least in our age mainly irrelevant to casting, except where the script explicitly makes it of absolutely crucial relevance. Native Son, for example, would be difficult for me to stage to my satisfaction with a white actor playing Bigger Thomas; but on the other hand, I’ve directed Daniel David Moses’s Brebeuf’s Ghost, which is about the impact of White European culture upon Aboriginal American culture, with a more or less all white cast, no aboriginal actors being available, because I think that the play is really more about the collision of ideas than race, per se.) To take some obvious examples, if a script requires a character to be beautiful, it is difficult to make do with someone homely; if references are made to a character’s anorexia, it would confusing to cast an obese actor; and if the character is a domineering alpha male in the Coriolanus mould, the audience might rightly complain if, oh, say, Wallace Shawn were cast. Unless, of course, the production is making a point of the very unsuitability of the characters for the roles in which the characters are cast---unless, that is, the casting is purposefully ironic. But more of that in a moment.

Either way, seen in this light, it would appear that theatre is one of the few places in which it is still permitted and even necessary to make the various sorts of value judgements which are, with very good reason, ordinarily regarded as invidious and therefore unacceptable in civil society. Choosing secretaries based in part on their looks is morally offensive; choosing Cleopatras is not. Indeed, in the theatre many kinds of stark personal assessments are essential. Consider the measurements that are taken in wardrobe: waistlines and inseams are set forth as cold, hard facts. Furthermore, in a conversation between a director and a costume designer about appropriate costumes, to ignore the fact that a particular actor is, say, slope-shouldered or thick in the waist, or whatever, on the grounds that to speak of it would be impolite, would be to open the door to various inappropriate choices which could result in the demoralization and even humiliation of the actor. It is awful enough in ordinary life to feel that one is playing a role for which one is unequipped (think of the dyslexic child called to read aloud, the innumerate student called to the chalkboard in math class, the klutz forced to bat in gym class); it is still more awful on the stage, before an audience that feels very much at its ease making judgements about the actor's person while it complacently sits in the darkness, itself more or less unobserved and safe from any reciprocal judgements.

As for personal feelings, it is patronizing to assume that the facts of an actor’s physical being must be left unmentioned before her or him. The body is the medium through which the actor works, and it must be known for what it is as thoroughly and truly as the carpenter knows a hammer. That is to say, the fat actor knows that fatness will be an aspect of any character in which he or she is cast, and so on; not to know so is to be not merely self-deluded but also a bad actor.

Moreover, because, at least in theory, theatre takes the entire field of human relations as its subject, and because, at its base, it is an attempt to expose what is by the light of what might be, it is essential that it not be limited by mere etiquette from making its meanings. In short, theatre has far more important concerns than the worry about whether it is on its best manners.

Maude Mitchell as Nora and Ricardo Gil as Dr. Rank in Mabou Mines' DollHouse.

That, at least, is the argument that I would make ordinarily. So why, then, was I bothered by the use of dwarfs (the word is not, by the way, dwarves: Tolkien must answer for that) in the Mabou Mines adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll House --- or Mabou Mines DollHouse as they prefer to call it --- currently playing in Toronto at Harbourfront Centre? (It ends today, so if you are about to see it this afternoon, read this later.) For those who have not heard, let me explain that in this production, all the male characters are played by dwarfs; the females are mostly played by unusually tall women. The point of all this is hardly obscure, and indeed is based on an ideological perspective that, in the last thirty or so years has become so utterly commonplace and unexceptionable as to be regarded as a simple truism: the patriarchy is a construction of figuratively little (i.e., weak) men to protect themselves against figuratively large (i.e., powerful) women. Fair enough. And yet the way the male dwarfs were used in the production bothered me, because clearly, they were meant to be inherently risible in their efforts to assert their authority. (I exclude Hannah Kritzeck, the young female dwarf who played Emmy Helmer, because she has clearly been cast because, while she looks age three, she brings to her role all the skill of a clever and talented ten-year old, which is apparently her real age.) Now, this is something that I have only heard one other person confess an unease about, and indeed, the dwarf actors themselves are presumably comfortable with the fact (it is patronizing to presume them to be unwittingly exploited), so it might be that mine is a rare, and perhaps even misplaced, concern. But, for all that, it is mine, and I am interested in delving into the roots of it.

I should perhaps begin by confessing that A Doll House is probably my least favourite of all of Ibsen’s plays (although there are at least a couple of his very early verse plays that I have not read). About a year ago, I saw Peter Hinton’s production of the play at the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal, and left feeling that if such a strong production could not teach me to love the play, then nothing ever would. But I would say that if I am unenthusiastic about the play, the evidence suggests that Lee Breuer, who directed the Mabou Mines production, hates it outright. Both Ibsen’s society and Ibsen himself appear to have been targeted for satire here, for the entire play is presented as a grotesque parody. Not only are its melodramatic aspects underscored --- literally so, for as with real melodrama, the action is accompanied by continuous overwrought music --- every exchange, every character, every emotion, every idea, and every gesture is deliberately over-stated, so that the ironic intent of the exaggeration is unmistakable.

Some people---some very intelligent, insightful friends of mine, I might add---have said that the production pays off one’s patience in its final moments; but to me it was more of the same. If Breuer’s method of over-statement was the equivalent of driving at 80 kilometres an hour in a 50 zone, in the last twenty minutes, he accelerated to 120, but it was still the same method: the underscored melodrama became opera, the characters were multiplied by dozens of puppets, Nora not only became “her real self” but literally naked and even bald. The final image is of Nick Novicki, the actor who plays Torvald, in a sheet which has served as a toga but now resembles a diaper, wandering through the auditorium, bleating out Nora's name in a babyish manner: the infantile nature of the patriarchy has been mercilessly exposed.

Well, of course, all of this was not quite like anything I had ever seen before. I thought it bold, sensational, spectacular and extraordinary.

But it also seemed to me simplistic, crass, contemptuous and sophomoric.

And I found myself wearied and vaguely nauseated ---in the way one is after too much dessert--- by the production's incessant, deliberate falsity. This seemed to be a species of irony intended for those with no appetite for subtlety. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the production seemed to me banal --- in the sense of the word that Hannah Arendt meant when she suggested the evil of men like Eichmann was banal --- not that what was done was not extraordinary or astonishing, but that it seemed empty of any real depth of thought or transcendent intention.

So, having said all that, the question arises: would I have felt more comfortable about the casting of dwarfs in a production which, on the whole, I had liked better? Well, yes, probably; but that would be a production which I regarded as a good deal more thoughtful than this one, and there’s the rub. I can’t imagine a truly thoughtful production that would attempt to elicit our derision for certain characters by having them played by people who suffered from deformities. There was indeed, at least one funny moment to do with their stature: when Nick Novicki as Torvald asked haughtily “Are you saying I’m small?” Moments in which we see a preposterous lack of self-knowledge are usually rather funny. But that still leaves me with my discomfort that these characters were only ever presented to us as ridiculous. If the idea is that any notion that the men who played these roles might have dignity and authority is inherently preposterous because they are so small, then it is an idea that I reject, of course. And yet the production made it difficult to reach any other conclusion except this. Again and again, it seemed to say: "Look at the dwarfs try to be important! Ha ha ha!"

And that, I suppose, I consider an example of invidious casting.