Go tell it on the mountain

When We Dead Awaken

By Henrik Ibsen
Directed by J.C. Compton
The Century Center for the Performing Arts
111 E. 15th St. (279-4200)
Equity showcase (closes June 23)
Review by Adrienne Onofri

Though Ibsen aficionados, who have been the core clientele for the Century Center's four-year Ibsen Series, were heard at intermission expounding on the playwright's symbolism and themes, even scholars may be perplexed by When We Dead Awaken, his abstract final play.

The protagonist is Rubek, an acclaimed sculptor vacationing at a spa with his young wife, Maja. They bicker over how best to pass time, she craving more excitement than he does. Another guest comes out on the terrace, and Rubek discovers it is Irene, the model for his greatest work. After creating their "child" -- as Irene calls the sculpture -- and cultivating an impassioned but tumultuous personal relationship, the two had parted. Now she's dead. Her companion -- a silent man with a white face, who wears a voluminous, black hooded cloak and a large cross around his neck -- appears to be the Grim Reaper (he's billed as Dark Figure).

This is no simple haunting, since Irene is visible to everyone. She accompanies Rubek up into the mountains; Maja goes too, with a swaggering bear hunter she met at the spa who intrigues her. At the higher altitude Maja frolics, Ulfhejm (the hunter) blusters, Rubek and Irene argue with and romance each other. Then Irene dies again, this time in an avalanche with Rubek at her side.

That synopsis is much more succinct and limpid than the play itself. There is copious musing and sparring over the purpose of life, artistic responsibility, disillusionment, redemption, inspiration, and other such ponderous topics. Typical Ibsen stuff, one might say, but this talky, somber drama could confound, or even bore, nonacademic theatregoers. Still, the Century Center maintained the artistry and fidelity that have been the company's hallmarks since it started working its way through the Ibsen repertoire back in 1998.

The play was staged not in a theater but a ballroom, with the audience seated on three sides of the performance area. The set comprised wicker furniture and potted plants at the spa, and faux boulders in the mountains. A stream was represented by the delicate sounds of water trickling, just one of the meticulous sound effects that established the place and mood. Nicholas Wentworth's superb sound design peaked as the drama concluded: whooshing wind and rumbling enveloped the entire room in the avalanche effect. Pam Snyder's costumes were elegant and authentic, with the quirky detail in Ulfhejm's and the Dark Figure's outfits as carefully crafted as Maja's sumptuous dress in Act 1.

Broadway veteran Dennis Parlato made a handsome, tormented Rubek; sprightly blond Tami Dixon and stately redhead Elisabeth S. Rodgers provided the necessary physical and emotive contrasts of the two women he is torn between. Tom Knutson (Dark Figure) had the proper presence -- and was used effectively in the eerie prolog and coda -- to keep the specter of death hovering over all the goings-on in this play about the literal and figurative living dead.

(Also featuring Carl Palmer and Bruce Barton; lighting, Graham Kindred.)

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Acting: 1
Sets: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2002 Adrienne Onofri