When Peter Pan meets Kierkegaard Review: Ibsen's 'Peer Gynt' isn't an easy play to stage. But at times, Shakespeare Theatre's production just soars.

January 28, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A little boy who refuses to grow up is at the core of the bold, intriguing production of Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre.

Think of Peer as an existentialist Peter Pan or perhaps a Kierkegaardian Candide. When he was a boy, Peer's mother tells us, she regaled him with fables and fairy tales. They had a lasting effect, though Peer hardly lived happily ever after. Instead of facing reality, he deluded himself, and his life turned into a series of ever grimmer fairy tales.

Reinforcing the idea of perpetual childhood, the first half of director Michael Kahn's production -- with Ming Cho Lee's highly functional and convertible set and Paul Tazewell's gloriously imaginative costumes -- at times looks as if it is taking place in a giant nursery.

The pig that Peer and the troll princess ride off on is a giant apple-green piggy bank on wheels. And Wallace Acton's young adult Peer looks and moves like an irrepressible sprite.

Even in the second half, when Acton's aged Peer has a mane of white hair, there are elements of childhood. A two-dimensional toy-scale ship represents his yacht, and the play's last lines are presented in the form of a lullaby.

Ibsen wrote this 1867 picaresque epic poem, which includes dozens of characters and spans decades as well as half the globe, to be read and not performed. Nine years later, however, it made its stage debut accompanied by a suite of music by Edvard Grieg that has become better known than the play itself.

Kahn's production uses an original score by Louis Rosen that is melodic but far more astringent than the romantic Grieg, and a translation by Kenneth McLeish that deftly cuts the original 5 1/2 -hour run time down to a mere 3 1/2 hours without sacrificing meaning. Combined with the director's fluid and often playful staging, these elements keep the audience involved -- most of the time.

The difficulty is that Peer is a self-absorbed braggart and liar. He thinks he has lived his life by the adage: "Be true to yourself." Instead, he discovers too late that he has followed the creed of the trolls: "Be true to your selfish." In other words, he's an unpleasant, dislikable character (except perhaps to acolytes of "Seinfeld").

Given that the character is unsympathetic by definition, boyish Acton -- who is onstage for almost the entire production -- succeeds in creating a Peer who is engaging in his scenes with other characters, though less so when he has to hold the stage on his own.

However, when this production takes off on one of Ibsen's flights of fancy, it truly soars. The trolls' mountain kingdom, populated by horned, misshapen creatures and presided over by Ted van Griethuysen's majestic monster king, is a wonder to behold -- threatening and alluring at the same time.

Later, when the now-wealthy Peer entertains a group of international business moguls, they are the personification of fat cats -- a comic quartet of roly-poly Humpty Dumpties who, though it barely seems possible, are even less principled than their greedy, opportunistic host.

Not every image or characterization is this effective. As Peer's mother, Trazana Beverley pushes the envelope of melodrama and slapstick too far, even if she is trying to suggest a mother in a fairy tale. However, as Solveig, the love of Peer's life, Rebecca Waxman is a breath of fresh air -- just as she is intended to be, since the love of a good woman is what ultimately redeems profligate Peer.

Ibsen is considered the father of modern drama, but that label primarily refers to his subsequent realistic prose plays. Still, the seeds of many of his future characters can be found in "Peer Gynt" -- from those who struggle for, or against, self-discovery to those who stick stubbornly to their principles or pride.

This is the Shakespeare Theatre's first foray into Ibsen, and it's hardly a typical or easy place to start. Students and lovers of theater can be grateful for the rare opportunity to see this monumental but peculiar play. Notable achievement that it is, however, this theater lover was also grateful that it didn't last 5 1/2 hours.

'Peer Gynt'

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees at 1: 30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and noon March 4; through March 8

Tickets: $13.50-$49.50

Call: 202-393-2700

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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