nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
January 22, 2008
The set for Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz at Urban Stages is not much. A black box here, a larger black box there, some sort of podium-shaped combination of black boxes upstage-right. But the cleanly sparse set functions as a blank canvas for the Wakka Wakka ensemble, a group of theatre artists from Norway specializing in puppetry. Little did I guess, when inspecting the stage from afar, that those black boxes might open, and out would pop magic.
Fabrik seems an unlikely tale for a puppet show—although appropriate for kids, it's not specifically designed for children. Based on a true story, our hero is Moritz Rabinowitz, a Jew living in pre-World War II Norway who teaches us the rules of being a good businessman and pleasantly promises in song to "make you a suit that fits." Rabinowitz seems to be a busy man, expanding his profitable clothier business; trying his best to be a good family man to his wife and only daughter, Edith; and boldly combating anti-Semitism in Norway, writing letters to the editor and speaking on radio shows against the Nazis. Too often in the public eye, he eventually becomes a prime target, and when the Nazis arrive in his town, Rabinowitz is forced into hiding. If history does not give away the regrettably familiar ending, then the program's bio on Rabinowitz does: he is tragically captured by the Nazis and, while imprisoned, beaten to death.
The puppeteers—David Arkema as Rabinowitz, Gwendolyn Warnock as his wife and daughter, and Kirjan Waage as a host of minor characters—all provide nuanced characterization through delicate movements and lively voices. Arkema endows Rabinowitz with a personable and passionate tone, but he also gives him an appropriate touch of cockiness, especially through his soft cackle of a laugh. As part of his rules, he instructs us to "look after your employees' well-being." But his employee Mr. Askeland, an easily intimidated quiver of a man as charmingly played by Waage, shakes in his boots when he hears Rabinowitz's voice, intelligently pointing to Rabinowitz's lack of self-awareness. Equally delightful to Waage's timid Mr. Askeland is Warnock's rendition of Edith, who performs a captivating ballet, with her outstretched leg trembling in pain near its conclusion.
A genuine ensemble, the four members of Wakka Wakka (the fourth being their dramaturg, Gabrielle Brechner) not only wrote, directed, and produced Fabrik but tackled many of its technical elements as well. Waage made the expertly designed rod-and-hand-operated puppets, which range from the adorably whimsical (particularly the elf-like creatures that appear to Rabinowitz in a dream, with scraggly white beards and a pointy red hats) to the dreadfully grotesque. The most eerie creatures of all, however, are the masks constructed by Warnock, particularly the wide-eyed one with bright red lips that she dons as a sinister anti-Semitic woman of Norway. But the puppets and masks are only one part of the visual splendor in Fabrik, as the Wakka Wakka team thrusts creativity into the most unexpected places.
When Rabinowitz needs to run errands in the town, an opened black box reveals a miniature town (intricately constructed by Stein Hanshuus) and Warnock guides a miniature car at the end of a rod through the streets, as if we were watching Rabinowitz zoom through his town from a bird's eye view. Later, in the midst of a dream, Rabinowitz is dropped into the sea, with the lighting by Andrew Dickey transforming the stage into one big pool of swirling blue light. As Rabinowitz swims about curiously, a shimmering navy fish (attached to a wire, operated by Warnock) glides towards him, and then darts away rapidly. The disconcertingly quiet atmosphere foreshadows the sudden appearance of Hitler from out of nowhere, who chases Rabinowitz and chomps down on his arm like an angry shark. Technical director Erik Skarby adeptly melds the puppets, props, lights, sound, and set into one coherent whole, so that the scene—and the play as a whole—transitions seamlessly from whimsical to disturbing. The surreal atmosphere created in the underwater dream only increases as the play progresses to its chilling final image.
We might know what will happen to Rabinowitz, but there's no predicting how the Wakka Wakka ensemble will imagine it. I won't give anything else away. Part of Fabrik's appeal is discovering the surprises lying within what looks like an ordinary set.