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Peer Gynt's Playhouse

July 04, 2011

Evan Zes and Danny Gavigan in Peer Gynt. Photo: Don Ipock./La Jolla Playhouse 2011

On Sunday, La Jolla Playhouse opened a run of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt directed by David Schweizer in a co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theater where it was seen earlier this year. Even folks who attend a lot of theater can be excused for not being familiar with the play considering that it is a notorious outlier in many ways. Written as a epic poem in 1867, it wasn’t intended for a life on the stage. But it got there anyway by 1876 retaining much of its monumental length and episodic nature, which are only two of the qualities that separate it from nearly everything else Ibsen wrote for the theater. The play can run for hours and careens through a variety of different tones and genres. It is fantastical in the extreme at points and later decidedly melodramatic. It’s the theatrical equivalent of Legos where the interest is not so much in the substrate in and of itself, but rather what certain creative teams elect to do with the material at hand.

Schweizer, who has wrangled with Peer Gynt before, starts out with some good intentions in this latest incarnation of the folkloric Norwegian wanderer. He has reduced the action to two acts that run just over two hours with intermission and a cast of five that play all of the dozens of parts still remaining in the new script. He puts contemporary dialect in his actors’ mouths and most of the roles are shared in one way or another, including Peer Gynt himself who all three male performers, Danny Gavigan, Luis Moreno, and Evan Zes, take turns playing. The women in the cast include Birgit Huppuch who is Peer’s mother and his beloved Solveig; and Kate Cullen Roberts who plays Ingrid and Anitra.

Things quickly go sour, however, when all the compacting is done. The story does maintain many of the key scenes and events in the poem and play. But the problem here is not what has been cut away as much as the tone of what remains. Certainly Ibsen produced a satirical work on contemporary ideals and aspects of what he perceived as the Norwegian national character. So while humor is not out of place, the breakneck irreverent zaniness of Schweizer’s adaptation jettisons almost everything else except for a little tired sentiment to hold the remainders together. Set in a single room shack with vaguely Nordic-looking furnishings, the set recalls a Pacific Northwestern version of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The acting and dialog is delivered in a detached Saturday morning TV manner. It can be funny as when Peer comes up against the three headed Troll King whose extra crania provide running yucks on every line out of his mouth. There are funny accents and scatological humor and, while none of this is problematic in and of itself, there is little substance to set any of this against in Schweizer's version. More often than not, the colorful proceedings are tiresome like some low-quality theatrical event for children.

There are several lovely projection elements from Darrel Maloney that pop up intermittently, and the cast all are clearly committed to the project and do what they can with what they’ve been given. But when the show reaches for a critique of subjectivity in the West, a topic rife for lampooning in the contemporary world, it ends up groping around in the dark even when there’s plenty of brightly lit laughter.

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Though I can't stand A.C.T in San Francisco, having seen one too many mediocre productions there over the years, they did present a simple, Story Theatre style staging of the play in the 1970s that was five hours long, and which ended up being totally moving. It's a great, strange, sprawling, ambitious piece, and the condensation you write about sounds godawful.
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