Within seconds, Wakka Wakka Prods.’ 50-minute play “The Death of Little Ibsen” can move from hilarious to indescribably moving. That’s the beauty of puppetry, which the three-person ensemble blends with their own acting to create an experience that can only be had in a theater: the kind in which a silly little puppet, dressed in Ibsen’s enormous sideburns and dour expression, becomes the symbol of something profound.
The play’s beautiful moments arise softly, barely even paused upon, as the gifted performers recount the events of Ibsen’s life (this year is the centennial of his death). But though fleeting, the poetic images and phrases form a spiritual biography, telling the story of a great artist accepting his calling.
The show’s tone is encapsulated in how the Little Ibsen puppet discovers his destiny. First, he hears an ominous whisper, made strange by an unseen speaker’s microphone. As the voice calls his name, Little Ibsen (controlled by David Arkema, also dressed like the playwright), seems hopelessly smaller than the forces around him. Arkema tilts the puppet’s head upward, as though it were terrified of the sky.
But then destiny appears in the form of a wee little man, his legs created by two black-gloved fingers on actor Kirjan Waage’s hand. The diminutive image is hilarious, especially since the creepy whisper stays the same, but there’s also magic in watching the finger-legged phantom glide across the floor. “I am the thoughts you should have thought,” he says. “I am the deeds you should have done,” and his tiny puppet body seems alive with portent.
Even when it aims for easy gags — most involving singing devils who say Ibsen’s work stinks — the production never loses its unique combination of humor and serious insight. The structure even reflects that balance, since the plot’s liberal sampling of “Peer Gynt” suggests both a parody and a clever reflection on a writer’s ties to his work.
Those who don’t know “Peer Gynt” will likely be confused by some of the references, and the troupe — whose members also serve as directors, writers and designers — risks alienating the uninitiated when Little Ibsen discusses “Brand,” “A Doll’s House” and “Ghosts” in quick succession.
But even in arcane segments, the production remains inventive. Take the surprising set pieces, which at first seem like a forbidding collection of human-sized drawing room furniture: The bottom of a chair is revealed to show a painting of the sky, or a bureau compartment discloses a laughing lady puppet. There’s color hiding everywhere.
Such surprises keep the play vibrant and easy to enjoy. And then comes the biggest surprise of all. After bursting with passion and wit, the show ends with an unexpectedly stark final tableau, asking if the life we’ve just seen was transcendent or merely a failed attempt at greatness. But that’s a fitting conclusion, since those same questions fill big Ibsen’s work, too.