Stage Reviews – "Martin Guerre" and "When We Dead Awaken"

A few moments after “Martin Guerre” has begun, the soldiers on stage point a cannon toward the audience and fire it. Nothing will seem as loud after this, one thinks hopefully. One is wrong. Loudness is the staple, firepower the seasoning in this sadly non-nutritious French dish.

“Martin Guerre” takes place in 1564 France, when Protestants and Catholics battled to the death, and when calls for religious purity made hypocrites out of the most sincerely spiritual. So, there should be something one could relate to in the year 2000.

In this production at the Ahmanson Theatre, Martin (Hugh Panaro) marries at age 14, far too immature for such obligations. He leaves his lovely wife, Bertrande (Erin Dilly), behind and becomes a soldier. On the battlefield, he meets Arnaud (Stephen R. Buntrock), who is ready for marriage. Martin gives his life to save Arnaud, and Arnaud returns to Martin’s village to inform Bertrande. Bertrande falls in love with Arnaud. In this version, she knows immediately she is living “in sin.”

The talented, hardworking cast members master the score and their acting abilities overcome the more laughable lines.

The book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schnberg, music by Schnberg, and lyrics by Boublil and Stephen Clark are bland at best. The story leaves no ambiguity as to Bertrande’s knowledge, which was the crux of the original story. Instead, the musical somehow makes religion look ridiculous rather than taking a stand against religious hatred.

Choreographic highlights include the dances of the village idiot, Benoit (Michael Arnold), who uses his beloved scarecrow as a gymnastic apparatus, and a digging dance by the farmers. Lowlights include clumping harvest and wedding dances. During the stage fights, one can hear the hollowness of the plastic swords.

John Napier’s design includes the best and worst of his work. Despite lighting design by Howard Harrison that helps sculpt the scenes, Napier’s background of dark brown paneling boxes in the stage and keeps all action on one plane, except when a portion of the floor rises up to form a bed or other platform. The cross of light and the courtroom scene provide thematic hints and visual interest.

Toward the evening’s end, the rioting townspeople set fire to the set. The backdrop burns in mesmerizing ribbons. One might be tempted to watch the flames, wondering whether the fire curtain is at the ready, wondering how the flames will be extinguished. One might even be watching the flames climb the backdrop while one of the characters kills Martin. In fact, one who normally pays attention to the story and its details completely missed this crime, turning “Martin Guerre” into an unsolved murder mystery. In this case, one does not feel one missed much.

“Martin Guerre” runs through April 8 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Additional Sunday evening and Thursday matinee performances available. Tickets $15-$70. Tel. 213.628.2772.

When We Dead Awaken:

Is the artist’s struggle for fame worth it? What sacrifices are essential? Do they ruin the soul? Does this, in turn, destroy artistic sensibilities? Are there parallels to love?

“When We Dead Awaken,” Ibsen’s last play, with its parallels to Ibsen’s life and an espousal of his last views on making art, is being aired out on its 100th anniversary, thoughtfully adapted and directed by George Neilson in a magnificent production by Pepperdine’s Fine Arts Division.

Still, the play poses those questions, calmly and coolly as winter on a Norwegian fjord.

After a brief prologue (Patric Rayburn and Michael Newman), we see the sculptor Rubek (Kristopher Scott) working on his opus magnum, a monumental work that includes five life-size human figures (Nikki Almanza, Christopher Emerson, Monalisa Galang, Jeff Lee and Sujei Sierra) being carved out of huge rocks. In the foreground is a woman whom he brings to life — if only for a short while.

“The neglect of love is the cardinal sin.” Rubek seems sinner and sinned against. His wife, Maja (Brianna Fidele), alternates between indolent and ignored. Their marriage, a mere 4 years old, is over, leaving unfulfilled promises by each.

Ulfheim (Joseph Rista) is a bear hunter — and a wife hunter, it seems — who awakens life in Maja. He will take her up a mountain, cosmic compensation for Rubek’s broken promise to do so. This leaves Rubek free to try reawakening his spirit with Irene (Lindsay Scott), his former model. She claims her spirit had died because as his model she could awaken no passion in him.

Thusly paired off, and after poetically revealing episodes of their wasted lives in metaphors of death and reawakening, they struggle out into the cold, and ultimately into death.

Although the actors are “present” and every line meaty, the effect is trancelike. Neilson honors an old-fashioned and refreshingly peaceful pacing and restful volume. The cast also includes Cory Whitfield, Scott Neilson and Megan Christman.

Part of the university’s ArtsFest 2000, the production also brings together the talents of its faculty.

The startling, memorable and workable set, designed by Rick Aglietti, consists of a raked, multilevel stage that represents both art — the large, rocky sculpture — and nature — the top of the mountain the characters seek to reach.

Costumes designed by Carol Ann Hack offer clues to the characters, particularly the women: Maja wears earthy browns and rusts, Irene wears a pure white, embroidered chiffon dress and a white, fur-trimmed cloak.

Exquisite lighting design by Elias El-Hage offers “natural” scenes, including dappled sunlight on water, and the sculpting scenes, in which Rubek works in rocks subtly colored with cobalt, copper, turquoise and amethyst.

Sound design by Andrew Linhart includes a sprightly brook and chilling mountaintop winds.

Original music composed by N. Lincoln Hanks is wonderfully subtle and stands up to additional music by Edvard Grieg.

In the average production, when an actor says, “Look at the children playing in the stream,” he points offstage. Here, Neilson provides a video of those children. Produced and edited by Susan Salas, the videos also show dogs playing, scenes of water running (when Irene tosses blossoms in the stream, they soon run by on the video), and Norwegian landscapes.

Sculpted wire animal heads by Bob Privitt show the eye what Rubek has struggled with. The now-famous artist sculpts busts for high society, but under their surface lurk animal heads — the brutish side of mankind.

With expressive choreography by Diane Linder, Rubek brings his sculptures to life, in percussive, jagged, trapped, yearning movements; still, they never escape their rocky imprisonment. In Ibsen’s world, no one ever does.

“When We Dead Awaken” plays 7:30 p.m. March 1-4 at Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine University. Tel. 310.456.4522.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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