If you’re like me and love this time of year for its spookiness but don’t like the idea of going to an intense haunted house, then Bluebeard’s Dollhouse by Combustible Company at the James J Hill House is the perfect Halloween experience for you. Merging Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House with the dark fairytale Bluebeard’s Wife, this immersive theater experience throws you into a psychologically tense and riveting journey through a house ridden with people trying to face their fears and struggle against the confines of the house, of relationships, and of society itself.
I’e never attended immersive theater before and this was a wonderful first experience. Expertly led by actors from room to room and split into groups so that the story unfolds in a different order depending who you’re experiencing it with, two stories (of Nora and Thorvold, and Bluebeard and his wife/wives) intertwine of a mesmerizing, eerie, and unsettling marriage. With an extremely talented cast of Isaac Bont, Beth Brooks, Karla Grotting, Paul Herwig, Erik Hoover, Renee Howard, Rachel Nelson, Lillian Noonan, Pearl Noonan, Anna Pladson,and Jonathan Saliger, all play different variations of Nora and Bluebeard/Throvold. This allows different versions of these characters to act out the story over and over, like they are reliving or retelling their past. They ask at end of the show, if you do something over and over, will it turn out different? And when it doesn’t, why do we think that it will? This refers not just to the horrors Bluebeard creates, but repetition in marriage, in communication, in hautings and what haunts us and, in a sense, in theater itself.
What’s so wonderful about this show is that since it’s immersive and sight-specific, you’re drawn deeply into this world and firmly rooted in this strange, otherworldly place where both magic and horror coexist. With astonishingly detailed costumes by Allisa McCourt and Nico Swenson, a soundscape of organ music and clock chimes, projections and videos by Jim Peitzman, vocal direction by Kalen Keir, and captivating writing and direction by Kym Longhi, for 80 minutes you truly feel you are caught in this house where secrets hanging in the air as thick as fog. This piece is wonderfully coordinated and I was deeply impressed with the flow (as well as the crowd control) of this performance and stage management of Caleigh Gumbiner. You also don’t have to know the source material to understand the show, but if you’re familiar with both Ibsen’s play and the fairytale, it’ll add an extra layer to this beautifully dense piece. And if you want some quick background before the show, the program has a wonderfully written essay by dramaturg William Banks.
I don’t want to say too much about this show because there’s different ways to interpret what’s going on (especially through the wonderful metaphors and symbolism through keys, mirrors, letters, dolls, veils, and knives). So go see it and tell me what you saw and I’ll tell you about my experience. I saw this in one order and I’d love to know how it feels in the other many possible ways that exist in seeing it.
Bluebeard’s Dollhouse is written and directed by Kym Longhi. It is playing now through October 15th at the James J Hill House. Show and ticket information can be found on Combustible Company’s website.