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Published: Friday, 6/30/2006

Former Sylvania resident Gwendolyn Warnock hears cheers for her work on New York stage

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
From left, Gwendolyn Warnock as Torvald, Kirjan Wagge as Little Ibsen, and David Arkema as Mini Ibsen in the company s production of The Death of Little Ibsen. The puppet show for adults, based on the life of Norwegian playwright
Henrik Ibsen, was performed from April 29 to June 11 in the Sanford Meisner Theater in New York.
From left, Gwendolyn Warnock as Torvald, Kirjan Wagge as Little Ibsen, and David Arkema as Mini Ibsen in the company s production of The Death of Little Ibsen. The puppet show for adults, based on the life of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, was performed from April 29 to June 11 in the Sanford Meisner Theater in New York.
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Know that funny sound that Fozzie Bear makes after he tells a lame joke?

Something like, wakka wakka ?

That s how it sounded to former Sylvania resident Gwendolyn Warnock and three friends, anyway. So, being fans of Muppets creator Jim Henson, that s what they named their New York-based theatrical production company.

Now the sound they re hearing is applause.

These people may be geniuses, wrote Anita Gates of the New York Times in a review of Wakka Wakka Productions The Death of Little Ibsen, which was performed at a New York theater from April 29 to June 11. Its run was extended three times past its original closing date of May 23, the 100th anniversary of the death of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, on whose life the unconventional puppet show for adults is based.

Warnock Warnock
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The reviewer was referring to Warnock and her partners David Arkema, Gabrielle Brechner, and Kirjan Waage. They make up the Wakka Wakka ensemble credited as writer, director, producer, set designer, costume designer, and composer of the original music for the play that s performed almost exclusively by puppets controlled by Warnock, Arkema, and Waage. Wearing Victorian costumes and dark makeup, the puppeteers remain visible to the audience. Brechner handles lighting and sound.

The Death of Little Ibsen at the Sanford Meisner Theater is an exquisite little one-act show that evokes the best of Jim Henson s early, dangerous days with the Muppets, Gates raved.

That was just one of the positive reviews the show earned, starting with one published on variety.com that praised its unique combination of humor and serious insight.

That [first review] legitimized our production, said Warnock, 30, a 1994 graduate of Sylvania Southview High School who now lives in New York City.

It was so hard to get the reviewers to our show. You re hoping someone will take enough interest to show up, and when they do you re scared out of your pants. When the reviews are good, you just can t believe it, she said in a telephone interview.

Little Ibsen has been invited to the Ibsen Festival 2006 in Oslo, Norway, in early September and to an Ibsen conference at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in November, Warnock said. A show tour is being organized and may include stops in Ohio, she added.

Warnock still has a lot of family in the Toledo area, including her mother, Janet Felton, who lives downtown, and father, Dr. Eric Warnock of Maumee.

After high school, Warnock went on to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., earning a bachelor s degree in speech with a major in performance studies in 1998. She also trained on the trapeze at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts and the Actor s Gymnasium in Chicago. That s not as offbeat as it sounds: Warnock had a hunch it would come in handy in her theatrical career and she was right.

The devils, representing Henrik Ibsen s doubts and critics, in The Death of Little Ibsen. In the play, the devils are controlled by former Sylvania resident Gwendolyn Warnock. The devils, representing Henrik Ibsen s doubts and critics, in The Death of Little Ibsen. In the play, the devils are controlled by former Sylvania resident Gwendolyn Warnock.
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She used her aerial skills in 2001 when she played Juliet in an acrobatic version of Romeo and Juliet at St. George s Theatre in London and at the International Al Bustan International Festival of Music and the Arts in Beirut.

But a more significant career-defining experience snuck up on her.

The ambush took place at a show presented at Northwestern by a British theatrical company. Warnock was stunned; It was the first time I had given a standing ovation in a theater, she said.

She checked the actors bios and discovered all had attended the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. I said, I have to go to this school.

The focus there is on body language, she explained. The emphasis of the school is on what happens before the first piece of text. Before speech there is movement.

At the school, she met Arkema and Waage, with whom she founded Wakka Wakka Productions in 2001. (Waage also is her fiance. They plan to get married in August, 2007.) Brechner later became the fourth member of the company.

Wakka Wakka s Web site (www.wakkawakka.org) says it is devoted to pushing the boundaries of the imagination by creating works that are bold, unique and unpredictable.

Although the company s first production had an all-human cast, its stories increasingly are told through blended casts of puppets and people, Warnock said. Most are aimed at adult audiences.

Its first play, B9: Clinch Mountain Lookout in August, 2001, presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is the story of an apparently perfect couple whose relationship disintegrates as domestic bliss turns to marital horror.

That was followed the next year by Fattie and Skinny Show!, a play created for the Haugesund International Film Festival. Friends Fattie and Skinny are hilariously inept performers who put on a show in their living room. The work is more pure comedy than other Wakka Wakka plays, which also have elements of tragedy, Warnock said.

The troupe performed Fattie and Skinny in numerous venues in New York in 2003.

Puppets had the starring roles for the first time in The Untold Story of Monkey the adventures of a young monkey named Julius from his home in the jungle to test labs to outer space and finally, to his untimely death.

That led to Wakka Wakka s first and only family puppet show, Erik the Amazing and the Shallaballah, about a young boy who overcomes his fears of the world by becoming a superhero and saving animals. The play has been performed at the Brooklyn Children s Museum; this summer Wakka Wakka is under contract to perform Erik the Amazing in New York City parks, and has been invited to present it at the East Hamptons Children s Museum and the Catskills Mountain Foundation.

Puppet-based plays allow more creative freedom for storytelling than is possible with human performers, Warnock observed. I enjoy performing as a human being as well, but as a creator, writer, and director, we have more liberties using puppets. We re not bound by [human] limitations. Characters can float or fly. It s easier to make magic happen, she said.

A reviewer s comparison of their puppetry to Henson s let us know we were on the right track, Warnock continued.

They hope the parallels don t end there.

Our goal is to take the puppets on to television, she said.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com or 419-724-6126.



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