Strange Odyssey

Ibsen's 'Peer Gynt' isn't easy to stage, but the Guthrie turns this odd tale into a sprawling, dreamlike adventure

PEER GYNT
at the Guthrie Theater, through March 2
612.377.2224

Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt is an antihero with enough epic foibles and fever-dream adventures to match Don Quixote nuttiness for nuttiness. At the outset of Robert Bly's new adaptation of the work, though, he's a schlub named Peter (Mark Rylance) whose co-workers at a company called Enterprise plan to surprise him with a 50th birthday party to lift his spirits (the lights go out, and the audience is enlisted to help shock the old boy into some semblance of happiness).

It's a nice little framing device, and a way to draw viewers into a sense of intimacy and connection with this notoriously prickly and problematic drama. Ibsen himself, composing the work in rhyming couplets that Bly adroitly mimics, intended it to live on the printed page rather than onstage. The key to this staging is understatement, with a minimal set, no hint of Edvard Grieg's portentous tunes, and Rylance's stunning command of the work's language, rhythm, and tone.

It's his party, and he'll cry if he wants to: Mark Rylance as Peer Gynt, with Miriam Silverman, Jonas Goslow, Jim Lichtscheidl, and Richard Ooms
Michal Daniel
It's his party, and he'll cry if he wants to: Mark Rylance as Peer Gynt, with Miriam Silverman, Jonas Goslow, Jim Lichtscheidl, and Richard Ooms

Peter proceeds to collapse at his party, and Ibsen's original action begins as a sort of fantastic dream (in the original, Peer hits his head at one point, and much of the subsequent action is imagined, so it's not as much of a stretch as it might seem). Peer, we quickly learn, is a young shithead who returns home to his long-suffering mother (Isabell Monk O'Connor) with a wild hunting story that he cribbed from folklore.

He's a fabulist, our Peer, as well as an alarmingly amoral wrecking ball of a guy; when his mother suggests he could have married a well-off young girl scheduled to be hitched the next day, Peer takes it as a suggestion that he should go to the wedding and steal the bride for himself. Rylance tackles his character's youthful years with a voice infused with a doleful lilt, his affect flat or just plain weird.

At the wedding, we see that Peer is hardly an object of affection or respect among the locals (he reciprocates, at one point averring, "What I need is a big cleaver so I can cut their guts out"). But this act of antisocial wedding crashing yields results. Peer meets his transcendent love, Solveig (Miriam Silverman), then nabs bride Ingrid (Catherine Johnson Justice) and makes away with her to the mountains.

What follows would make a writer for Cliff's Notes weep with frustration, but suffice it to say Peer mercilessly dogs Ingrid, makes hay with a troll princess (Tracey Maloney), considers becoming a troll until learning that his diet would consist of shit and piss, learns that he knocked up said princess, and attends to his dying mother. After the intermission, our hero, aged now, recounts his years as a slave trader, then gets ripped off by his friends and abandoned in the desert, where he becomes a guru to a gaggle of comely women. Stints as a scholar and an inmate in an insane asylum follow, capped off by his return to Norway, where he ends up lobbying for a place in Hell rather than having his soul melted down into slag for the next go-round.

Yeah, well, no one said this was going to be easy. But the scope and ambition of this production is realized in its assurance and confidence (at one point on opening night, during a soliloquy, Rylance broke the fourth wall to thank an audience member for laughing). And while this is by no means a show that moves the heart in any obvious fashion, it has a restlessness and sense of adventure that would have been lost had director Tim Carroll attempted to stage it as a more conventional drama.

The ending drives home the point that, for all its chilliness, this has been a venture far more emotional than cerebral. Peer finds his Solveig and collapses into her, his search for self perhaps realized, perhaps not (it's one of the most inscrutable endings imaginable). Still, this strange, sprawling thing succeeds on its own terms, its metaphors for life's journey oblique and disturbing, its heart throbbing but hidden, its hero as clumsy, bizarre, and grasping as pretty much any of us.

 
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