The Unsavvy Traveler

And updated Peer Gynt goes comic

Blue Barn Theatre houses a fresh, often hilarious, contemporized, profanity-spiked take on Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. This version, called Gnit, is written by a guy from Massachusetts, Will Eno. The skilled actors get a lot of good results out of what’s there. They especially make the best of a multitude of funny lines without ever going overboard, thanks, no doubt, to director Susan Clement-Toberer’s take on how to play it.

Eno’s source is frequently considered to be some kind of major work. There are substantial reasons. It was written in rich, poetic language. And the fascinating concept broke a lot of ground, deliberately disregarding conventional stagecraft, potentially becoming a spectacular experience. Ibsen explored the realms of the conscious and the unconscious, of time, of space. Ibsen blended fantasy with realism. Plus, he had a pointed, underlying theme.

There have been many translations and adaptations. The original script stretches over five acts and can last as long as five hours. It includes more than 50 characters. You can understand why Eno and other tacklers of the task might want to trim the trip. In this case, it arrives at its final destination in about two hours with a cast of six.

It looks, at times, like Eno is sending up Ibsen’s ideas, such as transforming mountain trolls into real estate agents and lawyers. Or having a scene mimicking Hamlet’s visit with a grave-digger. But you needn’t know these references, nor even know other details of Peer Gynt to enjoy the best parts of this approach.

The core of the story is one of many about journeys of self-discovery, and, certainly, Peer Gynt (here called Peter Gnit) keeps looking for himself, always thinking he’s found the truth. He never finds it.  He’s not bright enough, not smart enough, not self-aware enough. No philosophical musings emerge, i.e., we don’t get much intellectual territory to explore. Certainly what Eno has written lacks that. He sticks to Ibsen’s basic plot and developments while deleting a lot of the potentially colorful scenes to get down to the empty space in the middle: Peter’s soul. Herein lies the problem.  How can audiences relate to Peter? We spend a lot of time devoted to a person you can’t really hate, you can’t really like, you can’t find entertaining. A ticket to nowhere.

Sure, you can go the intellectual analysis route and see that Peter’s an airhead and that those of us who think like he does deceive ourselves about ourselves, failing to invest time, emotions and effort into serious relationships. But you have to do the work to think about that.  And you might not want to go there.

On the other hand, Peter/Peer, in his stupidity and foolishness, could be a comic character.  He could, alternatively, come across as sympathetic or appealing.  In this case, Clement-Toberer and actor Matthew Pyle in the role don’t go in either direction. In fact, it looks as if she has chosen to keep everyone’s character development and depth to a minimum to be consistent with elemental sets and props, a sort of Brechtian choice.  A bare-bones emphasis on story and style.

Five actors in addition to Pyle take on 11 characters named in the program plus many others. This play is mostly not about them, although Peter’s mother and Solvay, the woman who seems the closest thing to Peter’s true love, do appear and reappear significantly. In such a vast variety of roles, there is potential for the actors to come up with a lot of different voices, accents, body languages. Fascinating stuff for actors. But not necessarily easy to do. Such an approach could be a major diversion for audiences. It would certainly liven things up. But making it so could take away the focus from Gnit himself. 

Jonathan Purcell, playing a collection of people in the Town, has the personality to become a hoot even within the confines of the restricted style. You probably can’t tell how many people he’s supposed to represent as he rattles off multi-person dialogue. You needn’t know. You get the point. Later Purcell does equally well as other individuals residing in just one body. Maybe he’s meant to be a nut case. Sure. Why not?

The Reader's Bill Grennan brings earnest gentleness to a variety of small roles while Stacie Lamb gives pungent definition to Peter’s sturdy, wise-acre, eventually expiring mother. And Sarah Carlson-Brown has convincing sweetness as innocent, abandoned, going-blind Solvay. Ah, but there you are. Not the stuff of comedy. 

As for Pyle’s Peter, a tough role to take on,  he thoroughly conveys the idea of an unlikable dope and stays consistent throughout the arduous assemblage of scenes in which he is almost never off stage.  He does look a little old to portray Peter in his youth but later fits in well into the shoes of the much older man. Given that Clement-Toberer seems to be avoiding an emphasis on realism, this works fine.

The entire lively experience can give you something to ponder. One question could well be: is Ibsen’s Peer Gynt really a masterpiece? But I think you’ll agree that Will Eno writes wonderfully funny stuff.

Gnit continues through Mar. 15 at Blue Barn Theatre, 614 S. 11th St. Omaha. Thurs-Sat: 7:30 p.m. Sun:  6 p.m. Mar. 16: 2 p.m. Tickets: $20-$25 Info at http://www.bluebarn.org

posted at 05:12 pm
on Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

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