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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
Henrik Ibsen's 1867 drama follows Peer, a figure of Scandinavian legends, from his youth as a penniless Norwegian yokel to old age and death. Ibsen chronicles Peer's varied, whimsical pursuits around the globe and in phantasmagoric locales above the earth and underneath the ground. The play features supernatural elements, including mountain-dwelling trolls, a creature called the Boyg, and an otherworldly button-molder. It has colossal sweep, both temporal and geographic; and it's written in verse with shifting metrical patterns.
When avant-garde director Robert Wilson staged Peer Gynt at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a decade ago, the performance, even with textual cuts, ran almost four hours. Doyle has reduced the running time to an hour and 50 minutes, and doesn't include an intermission.
Ibsen's protagonist, part questing folk hero and part scapegrace Everyman, is intriguing but hard to love. For this role, Doyle has selected Gabriel Ebert, who came to prominence (and won a Tony Award) as the dastardly Mr. Wormwood in the 2013 Broadway production of Matilda. Subsequent to Matilda he has portrayed an uneasy newcomer in the cross-dressing bungalow community of Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina and, last autumn, the hapless Camille Raquin, opposite Kiera Knightley in Therese Raquin.
Peer, as written by Ibsen, is an emotional and psychological shape-shifter. The failure of this character to develop along a credible (or even discernible) arc makes him an alienating figure for audiences. Doyle has directed Ebert in an outsized performance that meets the challenges of this difficult text and lends the role a certain consistency of style. The result is a Peer who's compelling throughout.
Doyle's attempt to wrangle Ibsen's massive text to suit the expectations and limited attention spans of contemporary playgoers is commendable. The dialogue of his prose adaptation is modern and idiomatic without sounding anachronistic. And there are moments, such as Act Four of Ibsen's five-act drama, that Doyle uses as a clever gloss on current events.
In Act Four, Peer has become wealthy and is determined "to be Emperor . . . of the whole world. He aims to achieve this goal "simply by the power of money.
Under Doyle's direction, Ebert's Gynt is, in this section, a ringer for Donald Trump. It's not that the actor actually looks like Trump; he evokes Trump's goofy qualities, his seediness, high-handed deportment, and tendency to say anything that pops into his mind.
But parts of Doyle's abbreviated account of Peer's odyssey are bound to perplex playgoers unfamiliar with the original. Especially difficult is the precipitous way this reduced Peer Gynt comes to an end.
The key to Ibsen's conclusion is the passage in the synoptic gospels where Jesus refers to the peril of winning worldly riches and losing one's self. As Matthew phrases it: "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matt. 16:26) (The same notion appears in Mark 8:36 and Luke 9:25.) Peer quotes or, rather, misquotes that passage in one of his monologues and Ibsen counts upon his audience remembering that.
Returning home in old age, Peer discovers that his patchwork of psychic qualities has never crystallized as a mature personality. In the language of the play, he has never managed to be himself." Facing the grim reaper (in the guise of that otherworldly button-molder), Peer appeals to Solveig (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the woman he left behind, the potential soul-mate who has waited faithfully for him all her life.
Solveig reveals the secret of Ibsen's play: Peer may find his "true self," she tells him, "in [her] faith, in [her] hope — in [her] love. It's a sentimental conclusion that depends for coherence upon the whole of Ibsen's massive drama. But, in the dying fall of Doyle's abbreviated denouement, the secret comes too swiftly and seems simplistic and pat.
At CSC. Peer Gynt is devoid of its accustomed pageantry. David L. Arsenault has provided a raised rectangular playing area that's plain and grey, with benches at its sides for the actors to occupy when they're not involved in the action.
Costume designer Ann Hould-Ward has dressed the cast in the simplest garb, largely drab and era neutral. Jane Cox's lustrous lighting design compensates for the lack of color elsewhere, marking scene changes and indicating the march of seasons and years.
The production's beautiful music is by Dan Moses Schreier, the reliably innovative sound designer who works frequently with Doyle on Broadway and elsewhere. Actors play a couple of violins, a guitar, and various percussive objects. From time to time, a humming chorus of cast members makes a glorious noise, with a wide range of dynamics.
The key to what's successful about Doyle's Peer Gynt is Ebert. In neat, well-tailored business attire (except when he sheds jacket, tie, and crisp white shirt), he's a genial, robust, high-testosterone Peer. He fills the modest-sized playing area with energy and agitation, seeming at times to leave scant space for the other actors.
Ebert's vocal production isn't as dependable or effective as the athleticism of his movement. He depends to excess on the high, reedy range of his “head voice,” and there's a monotonous quality to his monologues. But that doesn't undermine what's mesmerizing about his interpretation of Peer.
In the course of the story's seven decades, Ebert's Peer ages appreciably in clear view of the audience, without benefit of wigs or adjustments in make-up. At the outset, he has a slinky feline grace, stretching and preening like a lynx on the prowl for a mate; in the middle, he develops a stuffy grandeur; and, at the end, he's believably stooped and unsteady with age.
There's plenty to debate about John Doyle's streamlined Peer Gynt. What's incontestable is that Doyle and Ebert are an explosive combination. The two are fortunate to have Bernstine, George Abud, Becky Ann and Dylan Baker, Adam Heller, and Jane Pfitsch on hand as well. Yet the evening, at least much of the time, feels like a one-man show.