Elegant. Hauntingly beautiful. The sets for Henrik Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, based on an original English translation by American Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Robert Brustein, confirm post-modern director Robert Wilson as a visual artist of the first order. The scenery, designed by Wilson and John Conklin, is minimalist yet loses nothing in sumptuousness or effect.
If Wilson were only half as successful in his deconstruction of the play's linguistic dialogue, When We Dead Awaken would be a resounding achievement. Unfortunately, the staging fails utterly in this regard. The dialogue and storyline are so disjoined from actual human experience as to be pushed hopelessly out of the viewer's reach.
Written in 1899, When We Dead Awaken was Ibsen's last play. In contrast to those earlier plays which were concerned mainly with society and social convention, When We Dead Awaken is the last of a series of four plays which drew heavily on individual and autobiographical themes.
The play's main character Rubek (Alvin Epstein), an Ibsen figure, is an aging sculptor disillusioned with his work and the idle life that wealth and fame have brought him. Rubek and his young wife Maya (Stephanie Roth) have become estranged. Maya cannot provide him with artistic or spiritual inspiration, and Rubek cannot satiate her hedonistic needs.
Events come to a head at a mountain spa in Rubek's native Norway, where the couple attempt to find the solution to their problems in two of their fellow guests. The self-reflecting sculptor is reunited with Irene (played by both Elzbieta Czyzewska and Sheryl Sutton), the model who was the inspiration for his earlier work and his last hope for rekindling his artistic impulse. Similarly, Maya sees her salvation in Ulfheim (Mario Arrambide), a huge strapping bearhunter who represents the zest for life which has escaped Rubek.
Modern drama, of which Henrik Ibsen is the father, is chiefly concerned with the realistic portrayal of human experience. The viewer must be able to establish a rapport with the characters and their actions. Ibsen himself was so concerned with this point that after the publication of his first successful work, Peer Gynt, he forsook verse for prose, which he identified as more characteristic of actual experience.
When We Dead Awaken suffers from none of the faults that typify a failed production. The actors are not incompetent, the substance of the play, at least as it left Ibsen's hands, is more than satisfactory, and the scenery borders on the faultless.
The problem rests squarely with Wilson's staging of the play. Of all of Ibsen's plays, the last four, and particularily When We Dead Awaken, are largely symbolic in nature. When We Dead Awaken, so highly autobiographical, lends itself to introspective interior monologues. Yet as modern drama it is not unconcerned with realism. Wilson's adaptation and direction, in their effect at least, are. The tremendous liberties taken with the play's staging reflect this difference poignantly.
Elements entirely absent from Ibsen's original play have been introduced: Irene's character has been split into two persons, one dressed in white and the other in black. Ulfheim, originally a Scandanavian squire, has acquired a thick Texas accent. A spear, brandied about by various characters, becomes the production's major focus for over an hour. And three "knee plays", short musical skits devised by talented singer/dancer Charles "Honi" Coles (who also plays the spa's manager), precede each act.
In addition, Wilson deconstructs Ibsen's dialogue, attempting to investigate the structure of language. The play's characters speak, gesture and ambulate in an exaggerated and often absurd manner. Recorded voice-overs and other deafening sound effects add further to the viewer's disorientation.
Wilson's staging destroys the realism of Ibsen's modern drama. Even worse, it trivializes the symbolism of Ibsen's writing. Meaning and impact, far from being subtle or impressive, become clumsy and disjunctive. Dialogue screams out to be underlined, to be noticed.
Wilson's constricting mechanical direction produces not human characters with which we can emphasize, but shorn ideas, naked philosophical statements flung at the audience in dramatic, but cold and unemotional fashion. The staging subsumes the performances of the actors, rendering them irrelevant.
Unlike the visual arts or even the humanities, drama resists post-modern transformation. The means of conveying one's message or experience are not immaterial objects, but living, thinking human beings. We expect them to act like such because we are, for better or for worse, only able to learn from them when we can envision ourselves in their place. When We Dead Awaken fails to make this fundamental connection.
When We Dead Awaken By Henrik Ibsen Adapted and Directed by Robert Wilson At the American Repertory Theatre Through March 9th