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When We Dead Awaken

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Century Center for the Performing Arts reaches the end of an ambitious project with their current production of When We Dead Awaken. The play is Ibsen's final work for the stage, and the twelfth and final in the Century Center's series of Ibsen's work. They manage to send the series out on a fine note.

Under the direction of J. C. Compton, directing her fifth of the plays in the series, When We Dead Awaken here is straightforward, unencumbered by abstruse or overly symbolic staging concepts. Her work with Rolf Fjelde's translation focuses strictly on the story, and brings Ibsen's otherworldly story safely down to Earth.

Working hand-in-hand with Ibsen and Compton is Elisabeth S. Rodgers, probably this production's single greatest asset, in the role of Irene. Though Irene is, by her own reckoning, dead by the beginning of the play, Rodgers brings a real life to her character. She has an icy intensity in her portrayal of the former model and lover of artist Arthur Rubek, who meets him and his new wife, Maja (Tami Dixon), at a spa in the mountains.

Dixon is less effective in her portrayal; overly eager and extremely youthful, she never really demonstrates the suffocating traits that Rubek so often attributes to her. The work that Parlato and Rodgers do together defines Rubek's relationship with both Maja and Irene, and that occasionally causes the production some difficulty.

But Ibsen's writing and Fjelde's translation are strong, creating a highly dramatic atmosphere that Compton presents beautifully. So, when the lovers are getting mixed up, or when a rustic and near-violent bear hunter (Carl Palmer) enters the scene, or the dark figure (Tom Knutson) trailing Irene at every turn raises a hand as if to protect his charge, it all makes sense.

With a minimalistic set (no set designer is credited in the program), fine but unspectacular costumes (Pam Snyder), and very effective lights (Graham Kindred), there's little extra in this production, but certainly everything you need to appreciate it on a level of which Ibsen surely would have approved. The tale of the vagaries of life and death, and the price of art and inspiration comes through loud and clear.

When We Dead Awaken is enticing throughout, but there are two moments in particular where Compton, Ibsen, and the performers seem in perfect sync. The first is when Rubek describes to Irene, in exacting detail, the changes he made to a statue in which Irene has a vested interest. The second is at the very end of the show when everything the two lovers have been actively seeking - and avoiding - is put before them and resolved.

Both moments illustrate how special effects in the theatre are like special effects nowhere else. Words, movement, sound, and silence can have a profound impact, and that's the feeling When We Dead Awaken leaves as the curtain call starts. The theater's air conditioning is unnecessary - this production is capable of providing the most satisfying chills on its own.


When We Dead Awaken
Through June 23
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours
Century Center for the Performing Arts, 111 East 15th Street
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 279-4200

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