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Theatre in Review: Peer Gynt (Classic Stage Company)

Gabriel Ebert. Photo: Joan Marcus

The John Doyle era at Classic Stage Company begins with Peer Gynt, in a production, adapted and directed by Doyle, that is handsome to look at, well-cast, and a total bore. Henrik Ibsen's original play is a pageant, a cavalcade, an epic fable teeming with a cast of dairymaids, dancing girls, slaves, witches, madmen, and Arabs, among a great many others -- not to mention a cameo appearance by the Sphinx of Giza. A production of the full text can run three hours or more, and, even though some argue that the title character's dilemma -- his constant pursuit of self-satisfaction despite his inability to establish a true self -- speaks directly to our unhappy age, few companies are willing to tackle the enormous staging challenges involved in order to prove the point.

Doyle is a true theatrical miniaturist, best known in New York for his chamber productions of major musicals, often featuring actors who double as musicians. He takes a similar approach here, cutting the script to just under two hours (with no intermission) and eliminating scores of minor characters so that it can comfortably be performed by a cast of seven, two of whom double on violins. And he has filleted out of the text a reduced narrative in which Peer, a liar and a braggart from the get-go, wanders the world, tangling with a Troll King and his a marriageable daughter, confronting a mysterious voice in the darkness known as the Boyg, making and losing a fortune, surviving a shipwreck, enduring his mother's death, and, finally, crossing paths with the Button Moulder, a mysterious figure who comes to collect Peer's soul, in the process forcing him to see the futility of his existence.

I'm not suggesting that a full-out staging of Peer Gynt would be preferable -- there's a reason that so few companies are willing to take it on -- but neither can it be said that Doyle's approach successfully meets the apparent goal of streamlining the action to put the focus solely on the title character's all-too-modern crisis of consciousness. Indeed, the production is so stripped back that it is often hard to follow. (The set designer, David L. Arsenault, has provided a bare, raised stage deck that stands in for dozens of locations; Jane Cox's admittedly beautiful lighting uses an all-white palette and a limited number of angles to reframe the space; Ann Hould-Ward assigns one basic costume to each actor, adding to the general confusion.) With only half a dozen actors covering so many roles and the subtlest shifts in the lighting to signal transitions, it is often virtually impossible to tell where Peer is and to whom he is speaking. Given this stark approach, the play's many mystical and/or fantastical aspects are denuded of their power. God help you if you are unfamiliar with the play; chances are, you may find yourself totally lost. (I didn't realize that the Boyg had made the cut until I saw a copy of Doyle's adaptation; I thought he had been reduced to an offstage character discussed by Peer and the others.)

It's a sign of Doyle's clout that he has signed up such an A-list cast for this production. Gabriel Ebert is, on paper, a nearly ideal choice for the role of Peer. He has a solid grasp of classical technique and his rangy stature and sharp facial features are put to good use in creating a gawky, self-obsessed character. He is especially good in his early scenes, running around the stage with the awkwardness of a baby giraffe and spinning improbable tales for his loving, yet skeptical, mother (a fine Becky Ann Baker); he comes into his own when Peer has what you might call his Donald Trump moment, making a pile of money and subsequently disowning his career as a trader ("What did you trade in?" "People, mostly.") to relaunch -- you might even say rebrand -- himself as a prophet. Nevertheless, Ebert struggles to make Peer into a compelling figure, not least because of his overreliance on a nasal head voice that becomes increasingly irritating as the night wears on. Without any pageantry in the staging, Peer's fundamental shallowness and lack of insight are put under a glaring light. The rest of the cast, including Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Adam Heller, Jane Pfitsch, Dylan Baker, and George Abud, are so many satellites surrounding their star, circling him and feeding him lines. Doyle has long favored a kind of flat-affect line reading from his actors that is on display here and does little to lend a sense of urgency to the proceedings.

The production benefits from Dan Moses Schreier's original music and sound effects, and Doyle's adaptation sounds natural while finding an understated poetry in the dialogue. The Troll King, announcing his intention, as a precondition of marrying off his daughter, of cutting out Peer's eyes, comments, "Don't forget that sight is the source of the river of tears." A businessman, offering a backhanded compliment, tells Peer, "You must have had to work hard -- to be so self-centered." Peer, in a fit of grandiosity, declares his intention to build "Peeropolis, the capital of Gyntiana, my new land!" A doctor who greets Peer as the "Emperor of Self," adds, "Absolute reason passed at eleven o'clock last night."

But such striking words do not compensate for the lack of a clear dramatic line or the dearth of meaningful confrontations. This Peer Gynt wanders, confusingly, through a series of episodes that lead nowhere. Doyle's staging is, to the say the least, a bold experiment -- but experiments sometimes fail, and this one is unlikely to woo audience members who know Ibsen as the air-tight constructionist of A Doll's House and Ghosts. The director's technique fails to tame Ibsen's drama, resulting in something that is neither fish nor fowl. Late in the action, the Button Moulder says, "But my dear Peer, you've never been yourself." Watching this production, I knew what he meant. -- David Barbour

(31 May 2016)

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