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A CurtainUp Review
When We Dead Awaken
By Elyse Sommer
While previous plays in the series seemed organically suited to the elegant Ballroom space, When We Dead Awaken, with two of its three acts set on a mountain top, is more difficult to mount with minimal stage design. The play's metaphysical elements add to the challenge faced by director J. C. Compton.
The theater has been reconfigured to deal with the more complicated physical demands This sacrifices some seating to accommodate several tall white fabric panels which allow the actors to enter and exit from various parts of the playing area. Except for these panels, the set is, as usual, spare and not credited in the program. A few wicker chairs and table serve to suggest the resort's terrace, and a few stones and a grass green linoleum tile floor are used to evoke the mountain scenes. To compensate for the absence of servants, and other visitors and children that were specified in the original script, Ms. Compton uses more than the customary sound and light stagecraft .
Theater goers familiar with Ibsen's oeuvre will recognize echoes of earlier plays in the story of Arnold Rubek, a sculptor who in his youth created a masterpiece that made him rich and famous, but left him unable to work and trapped in a lonely and sterile personal life. As in numerous Ibsen plays, the action, which includes a marital crisis, unfolds over a few days.
In Act One, we meet Rubek (Dennis Parlato) and his young wife Maja (Tami Dixon) sitting on the health spa veranda drinking wine and quickly revealing a deep chasm in the relationship. He's locked into his private world of discontent. She is also unhappy and much more vocal about it -- accusing him of never looking at her and not living up to his pre-marital promise to take her up to a high mountain and show her all the glory of the world.
To shock the artist out of plodding through life in a state akin to a living death, he comes face to face with the ghostly, dressed in white vision of Irene (Elisabeth S. Rodgers), shadowed by a mysterious man in black wearing a large cross. Irene, it turns out, was the model for Rubek's masterpiece who left him because he denied his human love for her in order to fulfill his artistic purpose -- thereby destroying herself as well as him. Meeting Irene again prompts a desperate attempt by Rubek to recapture his missed life. The original playscript identified the Dark Figure a Sister of Mercy, and having a woman play this role would more likely lead one to speculate that the woman in white and black are two sides of the same character, just as Rubek tends to prompt comparisons to Ibsen's life as an artist and a man .
To enable Maja to actively vent her discontent, another visitor to the Spa, a gruff bear hunter and seducer named Ulfhejm (Carl Palmer), offers to take her with him on one of his forays into the mountain. Ulhfhejm likens himself to Maja's husband saying "We both work in a hard material . . . He struggles with his marble blocks, I daresay; and I struggle with tense and quivering bear-sinews." Maja and Ulhfhejm head for the mountains, presumably as much for a sexual tryst as a bear hunt; so do Rubek and Irene in hopes of reviving the love that was born during the years she posed for the Resurrection sculpture which she calls "their child"
Given the eerie black figure always hovering in the background, and the ominous rumblings of thunder and lightning, this drama is doomed to an operatic ending for which Ms. Compton provides what for this little theater amounts to pyrotechnics. Rolf Fjeld's translation is accessible but, while the dialogue is full of provocative talk about how the dedication to artistic purpose leads to a loss of life's warmth, this is not Ibsen's best play. As The Man Who Had All the Luck, Arthur Miller's first Broadway play (originally a quick-closing flop) that's currently being given a sumptuous revival at the American Airlines Theater is of interest primarily as a foreshadowing of a major talent in the making, so When We Dead Awaken is worth seeing mostly for its touches of glories already achieved.
The characters of Irene and the Dark Figure and Rubek's description of how he changed his original sculpture seem to break Ibsen's own principle of not letting symbolism overwhelm realism. Still, as William Archer stated in his introduction to his own translation of Dead " one may say with perfect sincerity that there is more fascination in the dregs of Ibsen's mind than in the first sprightly running of more common-place talents."
Of the five-member cast, Dennis Parlato is a sympathetic Rubek and Elisabeth S. Rodgers a lovely and passionate Irene. Tami Dixon strives hard to be several Ibsen heroines rolled into one but lacks the range to be worldly as well as flighty and petulant. Carl Palmer is gruff and coarse but fails to make a really strong impression. Tom Knutson moves wordlessly and with well-choreographed spookiness, and Bruce Barton is convincingly unctuous in his brief appearance as the Spa manager.
Now that this generally terrific series has drawn to a conclusion, I can't wait to see what Ms. Compton, who is the Century Center's artistic director, comes up with next. She has certainly given Ibsen enthusiasts a chance to see the connection from one play to the next, and those less familiar with his work an opportunity to become better acquainted with dramas which as she so aptly puts it "are like a narrow brook that's a thousand fathoms deep. . . you can see the surface easily, but the more you think about it, the deeper and deeper it becomes."
Plays by Ibsen reviewed at CurtainUp(plays in the Century Center's Ibsen series are marked with an *:
A Doll's House
Hedda Gabler (Berkshires and Broadway)
Peer Gynt (DC)
Peer Gynt (London)
White Raven *The Wild Duck
John Gabriel Borkman
*John Gabriel Borkman *The Master Builder
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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