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Celebrating a very modern playwright who died 100 years ago

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The 100th anniversary of Henrik Ibsen's death is being remembered by theater companies around the world this year, including at the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, Minnesota. Its annual Ibsen Festival takes place this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Pacific Lutheran University Language Resource Center)
For nearly a decade the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro has made the most of February's dreariness with its Ibsen festival. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is best known for works including "A Doll's House" and "Hedda Gabler." This year is the centennial of the playwright's death. The Commonweal is marking the anniversary with a production of his final play.

Lanesboro, Minn. — Every day of this year, Henrik Ibsen's work will be performed somewhere in the world. "Peer Gynt" will be in Egypt. "An Enemy of the People" will be performed in China. But so far as the National Ibsen Committee of Norway knows, Lanesboro will be the only place performing "When We Dead Awaken."

The play centers on a sculptor named Rubek who has stopped working, his very young wife, and his former model who has gone mad. Re-encountering the model shakes Rubek and his marriage to the core. His wife Maja is distressed when he suggests they separate.

"You mean just a trial separation."
"Not that either."
"What, then, what do you want from me?"
"What I now so powerfully even painfully feel that I need is to have someone around me who can reach my innermost self."
"You mean I don't, Rubek?"
"Not in that particular sense. I need someone to fulfill me."

The Commonweal is a professional theater company that opened 18 years ago. Resident company members act, direct and run the office. Nine years ago the theater launched its annual Ibsen fest, so many of the players have become familiar with the playwright.

This is company member Lisa Weaver's first time directing his work. Over a rehearsal lunch break, she says Ibsen is a challenge to direct and to perform because his work has so many nuances.

"Every time you work on a scene or hear a scene, there are new layers of meaning and different ways you could play it. You could play all these characters 50 different ways," Weaver says.

David Roberts plays Rubek, the sculptor. The character is exactly the sort of person who drives Roberts crazy.

"And so I've been kind of struggling with (it), but I really do need to get over that idea," Roberts says. "And one of things that helped me to get over that, or is helping me to get over it, is that here this guy wrote this play in 1899 and I'm still struggling with some of the stuff that he put down on the page. So there must be some truth in it."

Company member Adrienne Sweeney coordinates the festival, which includes films, storytelling and a Norwegian sweater show among other things.

Originally the Commonweal only produced theater in the summer. One-third of its audience comes from tourism. Sweeney says the winter shows were the result of a request from outside the theater.

"Local businesses came to the Commonweal and said, 'We do more businesses when you guys do shows, would you consider doing shows in the winter?'" says Sweeney.

The Ibsen Festival was sort of a fluke. The company considered beach plays, such as "The Goodbye People," but Sweeney says that was the only good one. On the other hand, Ibsen has 26 plays, many of them considered masterpieces.

Sweeney admits they can be rather grim. People come to her year after year and ask, will this one be any less depressing than the last?

"I think part of that is in translation," Sweeney says. "When we did 'Wild Duck' last year, it was truly funny. It was a truly funny production until the very end. And what made it funny was man's foibles. It almost played like a Seinfeld episode."

According to Ibsen scholar Toril Moi at Duke University, Ibsen's plays are funnier in U.S. productions than when presented in Norwegian. But she says the themes ring true, as do his characters -- more than 100 years after Ibsen created them.

Moi says they remain modern. They face what we face. She adds he was the first playwright to present women as human beings, instead of madonnas or whores.

"Ibsen is also about these people who feel increasingly lonely and cut off from one another, even in marriage, or just people who can't talk to each other. Now, I'm afraid, in some ways, that's the problem today too," Moi says.

Director Lisa Weaver says that drama and realism draws people from across the country. Last year the production, which ran through May, sold an average of 72 seats a night.

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