By William Wolf

PEER GYNT (2016)  Send This Review to a Friend

The long history of productions of Henrik Ibsen’s classic “Peer Gynt, first performed in 1876, includes a five-hour 1957 staging in Sweden by the great director Ingmar Bergman with Max von Sydow in the title role. I sure would have liked to have seen that one and observed how Bergman met the challenge of this complex and difficult work.

Enter the new Classic Stage Company offering, directed and adapted by John Doyle, the master of downsizing. This one runs only 110 minutes without an intermission, but it sometimes seems like five hours. By stripping the play to its bare bones, Doyle captures essentials, but, especially as performed on a rather restrictive platform (scenic design by David L. Arsenault), the setting seems puny for a play with such lofty ambitions. There are familiar Doyle touches, as with cast members doubling as musicians.

How well you take to this version may depend largely on how you relate to Gabriel Ebert in the title role. This is the saga of a man going through life trying to both prove himself and find himself. It is filled with grandiose ambitions, abuse of others, deceptions, events real and imagined—a road strewn with intense experiences until the final reckoning in which Gynt has to face who he was and what he has or has not achieved. Basing the play on a fairy tale, Ibsen provided what might be taken as an allegorical view of of humankind.

Although Ebert handles the extravagant dialogue competently, for this theatergoer at least, it was difficult to care much about the character he embodies. Physically, Ebert looks impressive, but as Gynt experiences the long yet here abbreviated journey, there is a lack of emotional pull, as if Ebert were going through the motions without reaching depth. Referring back to that Bergman production, knowing what a great actor von Sydow proved himself to be, I feel the result would have been much different, especially with the play staged to its fullest.

Admittedly “Peer Gynt” is an exceptionally challenging, almost insurmountable play to conquer, but cutting it down to what Doyle has done doesn’t seem to be the answer. Plaudits to all the cast members working hard to extract the most meaning from their roles, including Ebert as Gynt, but in truth I left more exhausted than enlightened. At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Reviewed May 26, 2016.


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