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Theatre in Review: Gnit (Theatre for a New Audience)

Joe Curnutte, Jasmine Batchelor. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Some playwrights make mountains out of molehills, straining to create important plays out of minor premises. In this case, Will Eno takes the opposite route, adapting a monument of nineteenth century drama -- you can call it a folly and I won't argue -- reducing it to the mildest of comedies about, you know, life. There are some amusing moments in Gnit, thanks to Eno's knack for out-of-left-field observations, but these pay diminishing returns over the course of two acts. As the title character wanders from pillar to post, learning little or nothing, you might start to wonder: Whatever happened to Peer Gynt?

Eno is the latest in a lengthy series of artists to wrestle with Henrik Ibsen's confounding, difficult work, an epic Romantic fantasy featuring a proto-modern antihero whose fecklessness and egotism would make him at home in many a twentieth-century drama; Peer Gynt, an idle farm boy, roams the world, searching for life's meaning -- encountering trolls, witches, and other indescribable beings in addition to swindlers, slave traders, and other corrupt souls. There's something Candide-like in the succession of bizarre events that fill his days without providing philosophical or spiritual illumination. It's a crazy play -- long, digressive, loaded with mumbo-jumbo, and probably unstageable as Ibsen imagined it -- but it has a certain nutty grandeur. The Edvard Grieg score composed for the original production gives you a hint of its scope. Love it or hate it -- and it can be tough to love -- it's a work of enormous size and scale, created by an artist possessed of a powerful vision.

Peer Gynt has had many notable stagings both in its original form and in various adaptations, including an opera, a ballet, and an "American" version for Broadway starring John Garfield. (Fun fact: Roger McGuinn, of The Byrds, worked on a musical version that was never produced; what could that have been like?) Gnit amounts to a highlights tour of Ibsen's plot structure, with most of the mystery and magic stripped out in favor of a certain wry contemporary humor. (The title character experiences the uncanny once or twice in the form of an anonymous voice called "the middle," but that's about it.) As is his wont, Eno treats the play's big ideas -- life, death, the passage of time, the meaning of selfhood -- with ironies so gentle that they all but evaporate upon hearing. In a way, one can see why Ibsen's play attracted a writer who loves to muse on the mystery of existence and the question of mortality. But, apparently, there was no way for him to handle this material without shrinkage.

Peter Gnit -- "It's a typo," he grumbles -- is a slacker, a case of arrested development, and a perpetual disappointment to his ailing mother. Other than that, he is hard to write about because how does one describe an absence? Call him a bundle of unexamined impulses and leave it at that. Even when he commits actual crimes -- kidnapping a bride on her wedding day, casually showering a crippled beggar with money, and just as casually clawing it back -- he barely seems to be present. His two chief pursuits are navel-gazing and trading whimsical remarks with the parade of strange characters whom he encounters on travels that take him from an unspecified Scandinavia to Morocco and back. He trades in Eno-style humor, which is often based on tautologies ("Well, I try to be myself. Because, really, that's just a large part of who I am.") or inversions of language: "I've got this massive inferiority-complex, or this tiny superiority-complex." It's a tough role, and not even Joe Curnutte, who has created intensively detailed characters for The Mad Ones in Miles for Mary and Mrs. Murray's Menagerie, is hard-pressed to make an impression.

Indeed, there's plenty of coming and going in Oliver Butler's production, little of it memorable. Jasmine Batchelor, an excellent Isabella in a recent Public Theatre Mobile Unit production of Measure for Measure, is fine enough as, among others, Solvay (Gnit's putative true love), a bartender, and a gravedigger. Jordan Bellow has a couple of striking moments, most notably a journalist writing a column called "Total Individuals," who finds that Gnit makes poor copy. Christy Escobar is solid in several roles, including a bizarre woman in green who is impregnated by Peter, after which she goes downhill rapidly. David Shih is tasked with portraying the entire population of Peter's town, a joke that grows old fast. Thanks to the nimble costume designs of Ásta Bennie Hostetter and Avery Reed, the actors make split-second changes that keep things moving at a lively pace.

Providing much of the evening's enjoyment is Deborah Hedwall as Gnit's mother, an experienced underminer with no conversational filter. "I'm on a journey to discover, to uncover, the authentic self," Peter announces. "Yeah? Get some milk while you're out," she replies. When Peter sadly notes that a young woman whom he professes to love is marrying someone else, she, consoles him with: "Maybe if you're worked harder at school or been born a different person...who knows?" Hedwall, whose specialty is a kind of corrosive skepticism, has a voice like a scouring pad, rubbing away all nonsense; with her around, Peter doesn't have a chance of capturing one's attention.

Kimie Nishikawa's set, a Scandinavian glen covered with greenery, is one of the more ambitious designs to be seen so far this year. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting is at its most inventive when creating the silhouette of a sphinx on the upstage wall. Lee Kinney's sound design includes an effective earthquake, along with fine reinforcement for Daniel Kluger's incidental music.

Ultimately, Gnit is a minimalist account of an epic, using small deflecting jokes to shy away from anything like grandiosity. It's to Butler's credit that his cast doesn't try to oversell this limited material, but it's harder to tell what anyone sees in it. Peter demonstrably cannot commit to anything meaningful in life, leaving one straining to care about him. Despite his many adventures, all he learns is that one lives and then dies, and it's all a big mystery -- you know? --David Barbour

(10 November 2021)

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