By Henrik Ibsen
Translated by Robert Bly
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
Produced by Polarity Theatre Ensemble
At the DCA Storefront Theatre, Chicago
“Life is a terrible price to pay for being born.”
Peer Gynt is a vast, sprawling epic, a parlor piece more related to opera than traditional theatre, sooner meant to be read than staged. Which is not to say that stagings are out of the question. But it does take a bold company, a strong vision, and a director – and translator – with steady, sure hands. Does Polarity have all this? Well, yes and no.
The adaptation of the script is done by Robert Bly, who has transported some of the action as well as made significant cuts to the play. And director Jeremy Wechsler has in turn moved the action from 18th century Norway to 19th or early 20th century America – perhaps Appalachia. This sets the stage for the incidental music of the piece, directed and (partially) composed by Paul Gilvary, who plays with a small three-piece band of guitar, bass, and fiddle. The music is nominally comprised of folk music; however, there were only a few snatches of Woody Guthrie (whose music I found to be totally in harmony with the play). Instead the band played The Beatles (hardly American) and a sort-of Johnny Cash version of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt.” I’m a fan of Cash’s version as much as the next person, but it is extraordinarily modern, and, in the context of a play supposedly grounded in Americana, I can’t get over the fact that Trent Reznor wrote it. Led Zeppelin played during intermission (British again). What I’m saying is that some of the music selected was exactly what was called for; some of it, not so much. And, sad to say, the band was woefully under-rehearsed and amateurish.
But getting back to the play: it is the story of Peer Gynt (Bryson Engelen & Richard Engling), a braggart who tells other people’s tales, pretending they happened to him. He avoids himself and anything resembling the truth – for his truth is bleak. His parents were once wealthy, but due to his father’s extravagance and untimely death, he and his mother (Devorah Richards) are left debtors. Through foolish action he is banished from his village and travels into the mountains, where he dreams of eloping with a troll princess (Meg Elliott). Upon waking, he is taken to the troll’s cave where he is told the princess is with child; he initially agrees to become a troll, then flees. Living in a cabin he’s constructed, the beautiful girl Solveig (Erica Bittner), who’s fallen in love with Peer, finds him and tells him she will always be with him. Confronted with the now-ugly troll princess with her child, Peer decides again to flee his situation rather than confront it. He returns to the village just in time to witness his mother’s death, and then sails out to sea. Years later we meet him on an island with his friends, plotting a new way to make money. They strand him there. Eventually he finds his way back home, old and destitute.
It is such an episodic and extensive piece that it is difficult to summarize succinctly. But it is a very interesting story and grapples with various philosophies of life – including Kierkegaard’s. The text is undeniably rich.
And Wechsler has decided to innovate, to attempt to make the story a parable of America. He wants to layer on a metaphor of the American psyche. Gynt is not a bad candidate: he starts scrappy and naïve; he gets into some heavy things along the way – slave trading, missionary work; on the island with his friends, he seeks to convince them to sell goods and services to the Turks, who are fighting against Greece, the birthplace of democracy. He’s gathered all these riches, then gets swindled out of them. On paper, it seems like it could work. But there was a great deal of awkwardness and tension in that regard between the first and second acts (or rather the first three and latter two). We start in ambiguous but folksy and old-fashioned times in act one; but after intermission we see these men in slick, modern business suits. And when they start talking about a war pinpointed in time and space, and it’s a time and space different from both the original setting and this new one, we start to cock our heads a little bit. It’s just a bit jarring. And casting Gynt and his friends as slicker-than-owl-shit Wall Street bankers feels both timely and already cliché – and recasting the modern trolls as businessmen and Republicans is even thinner. The program notes even mention the Occupy movement: “While we are in the days of Occupy Wall Street, Peer identifies with the 1% who control the money.” He certainly sees himself as a power-broker, especially once he’s achieved some success. And he has no qualms about meddling with others’ lives, leading them to ruin for his financial gain. That is the story of both the modern American corporation and bank. So, yes, in the latter half of the play – or at least in the first scene of the fourth act – Peer Gynt is this. But when he was younger he identified with the vast swath of the American middle- and lower-classes who see America as the golden land of Upward Mobility, who don’t want the rich taxed because they, too, someday, might be rich. (Never mind that Europe’s upward mobility has dwarfed America’s for almost a century now.) Gynt does achieve this, before falling once again into destitution; but in the end he realizes that the only riches a good life needs is love. Now, who would expect Jack Abramoff or Bernie Madoff to ever say that – or at least say it and mean it?
So I think Wechsler delivers a near-miss here. I think he had a good idea but had trouble plumbing its depths and really capitalizing on it. That said, there is no lack of great moments: the traveling motif that begins the post-intermission is fantastically clever; the puppetry of the troll child born out of wedlock is unnerving, and the human puppet the trolls make dance desperately upsetting – and excellently done. There are touching moments between both Peer and his mother and Peer and Solveig, both as a young couple and a pair whose time is coming to a close. Some of the verse is heavy-handed, each couplet seemingly delivered individually without much flow; but I’m not sure how much of that is the director’s fault and how much the script’s. Still, it’s an oddity of a piece, and for Ibsen-enthusiasts, Polarity’s Peer Gynt is certainly worth seeing.
For full show information, visit TheatreInChicago.
At the Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph St.; call 312-742-8497 or visit www.petheatre.com for tickets, $10-$20; performances Thu.-Sat. at 7:30, Sun. at 3pm through Dec. 18; running time ca. 2 1/2 hours.