The Death of Little Ibsen
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
May 3, 2006
A 56 minute biography of the life of Henrik Ibsen told through puppetry? Sounds wacky? Sounds “Wakka Wakka” wacky? Well, it works. This is engaging, effective theatre created and performed by multi-talented artists David Arkema, Gabrielle Brechner, Kirjan Waage, and Gwendolyn Warnock, a/k/a Wakka Wakka Productions, Inc.
Two boulders, a door/cabinet, a table, and a chair are all that occupy the Sanford Meisner Theater stage. But as designed by the company, these things comprise a magic box of fun and wonder. So creative! So inspired! Arkema, Waage, and Warnock are the puppeteers/performers. Brechner is in the booth (and also house manager). The four are an ensemble to be envied for their clarity of vision and the execution of that vision. Unbelievably, we see Ibsen from birth to death, with major points in his life highlighted. The company’s aim (from the press materials) is to explore Ibsen’s works through his life, to show the parallels to his life in his work, and to perhaps give insight into his work. They believe that Death is prevalent in his plays and seek to explore this theme. So, the three performers, who manipulate the puppets often in full view, are garbed as the undead, with Warnock, who voices and manipulates Little Ibsen, attired as a dead Ibsen (the old man we remember from photographs).
Through puppetry our imaginations can take flight—we stay with the narrative throughout in spite of it being a lightning-quick epic journey of Peer Gynt proportions. There is delicious irony, too, in how Wakka Wakka uses non-realism to explore the father of modern realism. This exploration is done with humor and pathos and with an original score by Lars Petter Hagen that includes a lovely funny recurring song, “Run Ibsen Run,” sung by a certain netherworld puppet duo. Using mostly hand and rod puppetry techniques, Arkema, Waage, and Warnock demonstrate a high level of skill. This is world-class stuff, folks. The puppets are numerous, inventive and surprising, such that I refuse to give anything more away. Waage designed and built the puppets with an eye toward the grotesque and absurd (trademarks of Wakka Wakka). Little Ibsen (who appears in press photos and thus I’m not giving it away), is a “Mini Me” of the playwright, right down to the mutton chops. The look is at once humorous and sad, a curious and effective juxtaposition.
The lighting design by Andrew Dickey, with a credited assist from Stephen Sakowski, works well. It is no small task to light puppets and puppeteers, keeping the focus on the puppets while allowing us to see the puppeteers. The designers accomplish this using a variety of small and tiny instruments. And the performers hit their marks admirably. Theirs must have been one painstaking technical rehearsal. It shows in that it doesn’t show. We never really think of the lighting—it is just seamlessly there when needed. Much of the credit for technical execution must go to the aforementioned fourth member of Wakka Wakka in the control booth, Brechner, who executes all the cues, including a fine sound design by Karl Schwarz. In testimony to her hard work, and clearly in the spirit of collaboration that is key to this ensemble, Arkema, Waage and Warnock take their bows with a gesture of inclusion towards the booth.
The Death of Little Ibsen is entertaining and thought-provoking. You will enjoy yourself even if you are not a fan of puppetry or know little about the works of Ibsen. If you love puppetry and know any of Ibsen’s plays, you will adore this show. Either way, it is an hour well spent in the company of four very talented artists.