Ibsen’s Peer Gynt Is a Narcissistic Saga for Our Times

Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt
Classic Stage Company
138 E. 13th Street

Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a maximalist play that would run around six hours if produced uncut, and most of those hours are taken up by one lengthy monologue after another from Peer Gynt himself, a self-intoxicated fabulist who gets all he can out of life. The director John Doyle is known for stripped-down, minimalist productions of musicals like Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, where he had the actors playing their own musical instruments, and his radically condensed production of Peer Gynt at Classic Stage runs an hour and fifty minutes with no intermission. That makes for a hard sit with no break, but the long playing time does help to give the narrative the sense of duration it needs.

Doyle is mainly interested in the fifth and last act of the play, when the aged Peer is threatened with being melted down and cast on the rubbish heap after his death. It is helpful if the actor playing Peer Gynt is more than a little in love with himself, but Gabriel Ebert’s Peer in this Doyle production is frisky, boyish, and stridently insistent in a way that makes it difficult to love him or see things his way. This is partly Doyle’s conception, for when Peer comes out as a middle-aged and successful man here he looks and acts like a nasty 1980s Wall Street raider in black sunglasses and preppy clothes.

Doyle stages Peer Gynt in the round with the barest of means: some buttons on the floor, a few rose petals, some paper money. He has said that he wants the audience to use their imagination for this fantastical play, but his bare style also taxes the imagination of his actors to their limits, though they mainly rise to the occasion. Becky Ann Baker, who plays Peer’s mother, does an extremely convincing death scene where we see Ebert pulling her behind him on a sleigh ride and she pin-points the exact moment when the life leaves this woman’s body, holding her breath completely afterward for an impressively long time.

Peer treats women like a pirate/plunderer, and he makes most of his money in mid-life in the slave trade (Doyle’s own adaptation of Ibsen makes Peer’s slave-trading sound a little vague, so that it might easily be missed by an audience not too familiar with the play). And so Peer needs to have a love of life so irrepressible and charming and sometimes maddening that we are willing to overlook his many faults and sins; without that joie de vivre at its center, Peer Gynt becomes unbalanced. We shouldn’t want to see Peer’s life force thrown away after his death, even if his monologues in the long version of the play can seem interminable.

Ebert is imposingly physical, uninhibitedly neighing and clawing at the turf like some forest animal, but his Peer is never quite in love with himself enough, as if the actor were thinking the role through rather than naturally assuming the narcissism of the character. Still and all, though, this is a tense and sinewy outing for Doyle at Classic Stage, where he is set to become the artistic director in 2017.

In recent years, Classic Stage has come to mean name actors self-indulgently toying around with Chekhov and Ibsen and Brecht as if they were rehearsing and playing out classroom acting games for a paying audience. Hopefully under Doyle’s tenure there will be a renewed focus and clarity for this company and its dedication to the most venerated of texts.

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