Peer Gynt: Theater review by Adam Feldman
The spirit of austerity courses through John Doyle’s production of Peer Gynt. Henrik Ibsen’s outsize 1867 satirical verse epic, written before the playwright's celebrated social-issue dramas (such as A Doll’s House), follows the dreamily egotistical title character through decades of wild adventures, some of them fantastical, including a near-marriage to the daughter of a troll and stints as an outlaw, slaver and prophet. In some productions, the play lasts as long as five hours; Doyle’s version is under two hours long, without an intermission.
This slimming down has been effected though a strict renunciation of many pleasures. Gone is most of Peer Gynt’s humor, gone is the pageantry, gone is the verse; gone, too, is Edvard Grieg’s incidental music, replaced with the scratches of a violin or two. Doyle’s adaptation mercilessly edits Ibsen’s first four acts, but dwells ponderously on the fifth, wherein Peer (a hardworking Gabriel Ebert) stands in judgment for having wasted his life: It’s a little bit Beckett, a little bit Our Town and a lot too long.
Seven actors play all the roles in modern dress, and the strong cast helps create memorable scenes: Dylan Baker as a laid-back Troll King in a purple arts-and-crafts crown, Becky Ann Baker as a pen that yearns to be written with, Ebert alone center stage with an onion. But even the production’s most playful bits, as when buttons and money are tossed around onstage, have little sense of fun. It is elegant and thoughtful, but hampered by priggishness: You can sense Doyle clucking at Peer—for his drinking (he carries a bottle of Scotch around), his vanity (he falls for a gold digger)—at every turn. “Life’s serious, not a stupid game,” says Peer in a moment of regret. Fair enough. But not all games are stupid, and serious doesn't have to be dour.—Adam Feldman
Classic Stage Company (Off Broadway). By Henrik Ibsen. Directed by John Doyle. With Gabriel Ebert. Running time: 1hr 55mins. No intermission.
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