Growing Up Ibsen

Ibsen is everywhere. First there was Heddatron at the HERE Arts Center, a hilarious sendup of Ibsen's "well-made play" Hedda Gabler featuring a cast of robots. Then in March, Cate Blanchett and her fellow Aussie actors invaded the Brooklyn Academy of Music, delivering a fascinating production of Hedda Gabler with Blanchett as the craziest Hedda this side of Bellevue. Now, with spring in full bloom, Wakka Wakka Productions brings us The Death of Little Ibsen at the Sanford Meisner Theater, featuring a cast of puppets and an Ibsen who is the craziest of them all. Strange, funny, and completely original, the play is a 50-minute joyride into the bizarre world of Ibsen's mind.

The Death of Little Ibsen fascinatingly and often hilariously deconstructs the famed Norwegian playwright's tumultuous life. The production chronicles Ibsen's life from his birth in 1828 to his death in 1906, and all of the play's characters, with the exception of his mother, are puppets. The title character, Little Ibsen, serves as an embodiment of the inner voice of Ibsen the man. And fortunately for the audience, Ibsen's inner voice is a little crazy.

The show begins with Little Ibsen's birth, a particularly amusing sequence, as he is literally ripped from his mother's womb. From there, Ibsen grows up. He attends grammar school and is accused of plagiarism. He fights with his demanding parents and leaves home. In his early 20's, he meets and falls in love with a servant girl, who seduces him and becomes pregnant.

Ibsen panics and flees to a university, where his radical thinking leads him to launch a newspaper. Soon his first play is published, and he is hailed by the people but reviled by the critics. He marries and has a child, then deserts them (on the back of a pig!) to concentrate on his writing. As the years pass, Ibsen gives up his mistress, returns to his wife and now-grown son, and publishes some of his greatest works.

Ibsen's plays are huge successes, but through it all Little Ibsen succumbs to his own inner voice (Littler Ibsen?). It seems Little Ibsen suffers from irrational bouts of paranoia and a monster-sized inferiority complex that grows worse with each passing success. Ibsen's paranoia takes the form of two devil puppets. These cynical devils mock and disparage him; acting as a chorus, they sing their negative messages in clever rhymes. The devils denounce Ibsen's writing, calling The Master Builder pretentious and sneering at Hedda Gabler. As for his inner-inner voice, it tells Ibsen to just die because he isn't really any good at what he does, and besides, the critics don't like him very much.

The unusual production benefits significantly from Kirjan Waage's brilliant puppet design. One of Wakka Wakka Productions's four members, Waage brings Ibsen and his puppet colleagues to dramatic life. With their oversized features and anatomically correct appendages, the puppets are in some respects grotesque. Little Ibsen is first seen naked with genitalia on display, and later his servant seducer exposes her breasts during a rather hilarious chase sequence.

The design and execution of these peculiar puppets is so convincing that they achieve lifelike realism with their eerily authentic movements and speech. The Little Ibsen puppet, in particular, successfully personifies Ibsen's personality, presenting a man who is at times interesting and amiable and at other times ornery and frightening.

The members of Wakka Wakka do it all—sets, lights, music, costumes. But they are exceptional in their roles as puppeteers and set designers. They manipulate the nearly dozen puppets with expert precision, becoming part of the scenery as they vanish into their puppet roles. David Arkema is particularly effective as Little Ibsen. Dressed in a costume identical to his puppet's, Arkema is flawless at bringing the playwright's neuroses to life.

The set design is inspiring, proving just how much can be achieved with limited resources. Consisting of two boulders, a table, a chair, and a wardrobe, the set pieces are covered in moss and various forest greens. Within this fantastical funhouse, the set comes alive, opening up into secret compartments and serving multiple functions.

What The Death of Little Ibsen gives its audience, albeit with tongue firmly planted in cheek, is the mind behind the man. The play masterfully exposes a truth about the great playwright: most of his plays are actually about him. In deconstructing Ibsen, Wakka Wakka charts his quest to find his true self. As he wrestles with ghosts from his real life as well as those from his writing, he arrives at his final destination—death. It's a fantastic, insightful journey that never fails to entertain.

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