Fans of classical theater are probably most familiar with Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House — and if you’re a diehard, PEER GYNT may be on your radar. Written in 1867, the five-act, epic verse play follows Peer Gynt on an existential journey as he searches for some sort of meaning through the course of his life.
Director John Doyle has adapted the piece for Classic Stage Company (where he takes over as artistic director next season), pairing down the text to a lean, intermissionless 90 minutes in which Peer (Gabriel Ebert) coyly dances through relationships with his mother (a miscast but nevertheless entertaining Becky Ann Baker), scorned bride (Jane Pfitsch), unrequited love (a meek Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and others. The cast of seven is employed on a simple platform set designed by David L. Arsenault, bleak lighting by Jane Cox, off-the-rack costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, and a bucketful of buttons that are sprawled across the stage within the first 15 minutes and can be heard crunching underfoot like a necessary wake-up call for the next hour or so.
In the program notes, Doyle states, “People say I’m a minimalist. I quite like that notion, but it’s not something I’ve ever called myself. I have an interest in how you get to the essence. Because my job is to do everything I can to clarify the story, but not get in its way and let it breathe.”
In the case of PEER GYNT, there’s so much oxygen in the room that it has displaced other key elements needed for an evening of engaging theater, such as a sense of place and emotional resonance.
Gabriel Ebert throws down the gauntlet in a performance packed with physicality and vocal inflection, but it’s cast into an abyss that swallows him whole. By the end of the play, as Peer faces his final calling, I felt equally depleted.
Here’s what other critics had to say:
If this production lacks the teeming, motley exuberance that pulses in Ibsen’s text, it definitely distills the intriguing philosophical essence of a play that still seems unsettlingly relevant. And you may wind up filling in the blanks left by Mr. Doyle’s stark staging with contemporary scenes from, among other sources, the current presidential race. New York Times
Boredom, in fact, is operative throughout this undramatic, highly symbolic “phantasmagory,” as an early translator, William Archer called it. Based on Norwegian folk tales, Peer Gynt is essentially a dramatized philosophical inquiry into and satire of Peer’s search for his true self. (The famous scene of Ibsen’s analogy of Peer’s centerless self to an onion is intact.) It includes both real and fantastical elements, although the fanciful here has been reduced to everyday dullness. Theatre’s Leiter Side
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through June 19
Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.