The Playgoer: REVIEW: Peer Gynt

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Monday, April 17, 2006

REVIEW: Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt
by Henrik Ibsen, Directed by Robert Wilson
"A co-production of The National Theatre of Bergen, Norway and The Norwegian Theatre of Oslo, Norway"
Presented by BAM. (closed)
Ibsen’s Peer Gynt definitely requires directorial imagination if it is to hold the stage in performance. According to biographers, at least, the playwright initially meant this work only for publication, thus freeing him to sketch out a journey across time and continents—featuring a cast of trolls, madmen, and spirits--as challenging to stage today as it must have been in 1867(!). The play thus favors a strong guiding hand of vision and style.

In the highly idiosyncratic Robert Wilson, then, Peer Gynt arguably finds as suitable an interpreter as any. Imposing his signature sleek metallic minimalism on every page (theatrically, his style might best be called German Expressionism meets Japanese Noh) Wilson gives us little pictorial realism of Ibsen’s folkloric forests, mountains, and oceans. Which is just as well, since that's what's least interesting about the play to us today. Instead his version brings out Peer’s alienation from all his many worlds and makes painful sense of the protagonist’s fruitless search for his “self.” Wilson further complicates this idea by dividing the role among three actors, representing the hero as a young, middle-aged, and old man, respectively. The first two are clad in white suits, setting them off against the mostly dark palettes surrounding them. When young Peer runs in circles—in fear? in pursuit?—he is the epitome of that small individual in the engulfing world, the classic expressionist anti-hero from Woyzeck to The Adding Machine. While the play clearly references contemporary events and trends of Ibsen’s time, many productions have allowed the play to get lost in a Brothers Grimm nostalgia and treat it as a fairy tale. Wilson’s designs may be forever stuck in the 19th-century bourgeoisie—his stiff-tailed and elongated frock-coats and top-hats take on a Japanese formalism—but here this sensibility does service in reminding us how modern the play really is. The more accepted realist masterpieces to come in Ibsen’s later career (Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts) are increasingly derided as creaky today; Gynt, though, in its jarring fragmentations, its juxtapositions, its huge worldview (Peer becomes a gross parody of a venture capitalist and imperialist), and its effortless magical realist mix of mundane and spiritual (the famous Button Molder in pursuit of his soul) still speaks to artists at least, if not always to audiences. It was a "dream play" thirty years before Strindberg immortalized the title himself. (A comparison that comes to mind in this production since Wilson brought a similarly austere Dream Play to BAM some five years ago.)

At four hours, Peer Gynt is long even by Wilson standards. But such is how long the complete text takes. Given the performance in a foreign language by the Norwegian national theatre, endurance was easier, though, for those most familiar with the script. (BAM still has not solved the super-title problem for drama—especially in the balcony!) Wilson’s images are enough to look at usually no matter what anyone is saying on stage. Gynt, though, features too many long searching poetic monologues for you to ignore the verbal element for long. Even so, the sheer sound of Ibsen in his original language is also a treat. How often do we get to hear that?

Speaking of the Norwegian company, yet again a foreign troupe has come to BAM as if to taunt and shame us over what we lack in stage acting. Pound for pound, I do not doubt we have actors in this country equivalent to them in talent and skill. But without a major repertory company to drill them in such classics on a regular basis—in multiple productions a year with major directors like Wilson—our actors simply don’t get the stage workout. Each of the Norwegians demonstrated incredible dexterity—not just verbal, but the intense physical and vocal coordination Wilson famously demands. Each—in this cast of twenty!--was equally convincing as acrobat and singer as well as thespian. No wonder Wilson journeys around the world to execute his visions. That and the generous state funded paychecks and budgets, of course…

Wilson is easily mockable by now, of course. He has become a brandname. A fashion designer of the theatre as much as (on some occasions more than) an interpreter of dramatic texts. And to be honest, Gynt—a play of such passionate flights and yearnings—does suffer ultimately from the incessant mechanics and sterility of his touch. (When Peer’s body-mic went out by accident Saturday night, hearing the actor’s pure voice was a welcome rare moment of uncontrolled humanity.) I still cherish memories from a decade ago of Ingmar Bergman’s production—a more fleshy and earthy realization of the play, infused by a, perhaps, more authentically Scandinavian brooding-slash-gallows humor.

So, in other words, if you’re only going to see one Peer Gynt in your life, Wilson’s probably shouldn’t be it. However, since productions don't quite exactly abound, you might be lucky to see only one--in which case do catch this unusual vision of it, if you still can, on its world tour.

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