Review: “Peer Gynt” at the Classic Stage Company
- OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic
"I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (John 12:24)
One legitimate critical strategy for reading/viewing Henrik Ibsen’s epic verse play “Peer Gynt” is the mythological (sometimes referred to as the archetypal) strategy – the strategy that interprets the hopes, fears, and expectations of entire cultures. As directed and adapted by the Classic Stage Company’s John Doyle, Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” is the story of the quest of a young man who willingly descends to the underworld and ascends to heaven in search of his “self.”
In the beginning of Ibsen’s 1867 play – written during his lengthy self-imposed exile in Italy – Peer’s (played with a self-effacing vulnerability by Gabriel Ebert) mother (played with a resilient hopefulness by Becky Ann Baker) claims he should be ashamed of himself. And throughout the play, Peer is confronted with making choices that affect his self-understanding and his need for self-effacement. Ibsen’s script is heavily seasoned with allusions to Judeo-Christian texts, particularly those from the New Testament that resonate with self-discovery, repentance, and salvation. Early on, the Undertaker expresses the need to “save [Peer’s] soul.”
It is only his encounters with Solveig (played with the wisdom of innocence by Quincy Tyler Bernstine) that give him clarity, challenge him to continue to search, and – ultimately – offer him solace on his journey from home back home. Like Penelope, Solveig is patient and forgiving: “But I know that you will come in the end, And I will wait, as I promised I would. God guard you - wherever you may be. God give you joy - if you stand before Him.” She also encourages Peer to be faithful and contrite.
Peer neither finds his ‘self’ at home (initially), nor at his father’s banquet, nor during his encounter with the trolls (a wonderful archetypal image). Near the end of the play, Peer meets the Undertaker (another wonderful archetypal image). Peer asks, “One question. What does it mean: “To be one’s self?” The Undertaker (played with a haunting persistence by Adam Heller) replies, “To be one’s self is to kill one self. But that explanation’s probably wasted on you. Let’s just say: to follow - in all ways - the Master’s intention.” This is pure and powerful mythos.
Though typically - with good reason – Peer is compared to Odysseus, Don Giovanni and Faust, a more fitting and certainly subtler comparison would be with T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock or Shakespeare’s “Seven Stages of Man” from “As You Like It.” Often Peer’s journey is much like J. Alfred Prufrock’s whose words resonate deeply with Peer’s: “I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter; I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, And in short, I was afraid.” Peer “fears being a dead man before he dies.”
Rounding out the engaging cast are Jane Pfitsch as the fetching Bride, Dylan Baker as the conniving Doctor, and George Abud as the soulful Bridegroom. David L. Arsenault’s minimal set design and Jane Cox’s simple monochromatic lighting work well with this fittingly sparse production directed with a keen eye to detail and audience connection by John Doyle.
When Peer returns home and asks, “Where was my self - my true self - the Peer who bore God’s
stamp on his brow,” Solveig replies “In my faith, in my hope - in my love.” Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” restores the hope that these three things might abide and heal our wounded hearts and disillusioned selves.
The cast of “Peer Gynt” features Gabriel Ebert as Peer, George Abud, Becky Ann Baker, Dylan Baker, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Adam Heller and Jane Pfitsch. Scenic design is by David L. Arsenault, costume design by Ann Hould-Ward, lighting design by Jane Cox, and original music and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Production photos by Joan Marcus.
“Peer Gynt” performs Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $60.00 on weeknights and $65.00 on weekends and are available at www.classicstage.org or by calling (212) 352-3101 / 866-811-4111 or at the box-office at 136 East 13th Street, New York City (between Third and Fourth Avenues). Running time is 2 hours without intermission.
Pictured - Becky Ann Baker and Gabriel Ebert. Photo by Joan Marcus.