Henrik Ibsen wrote his dramatic poem/ five-act play in verse, Peer Gynt, in 1867 and upon its completion he told his contemporary Vilhelm Bergsøe, “I don’t think the play’s for acting.” While watching the Thistle Project’s massively ambitious and brilliantly creative version of this classic Norwegian tale, I found that I was far more confused than I had hoped to be and reeling with what seemed like thousands of pounding and often frustrating questions.
Ibsen’s play-poem has provided much inspiration for the creative and the theatrical since its modest origins in Norway, although its staggering cast, sweeping adventures and epic, fantastical folktale origins have caused many to speculate that this story would be more suited to film (perhaps in the style of Tim Burton or George Lucas). In the Thistle Project production, director Erika Batdorf chooses instead to deflate this story’s vastness and to adapt it as a story told by two actors in a church with no set and minimal props or special effects. It is a bold choice, and one that is filled with interesting possibilities and maybe even some connections to draw between this story and its place within the contemporary world.
In 1957, Ingmar Bergman produced a five-hour stage version of Peer Gynt, at Sweden’s Malmö City Theatre, so it is obvious that in her adaptation, Batdorf also cut a substantial amount of text to create a performance which would run only 95 minutes. I was unfamiliar with the story of Peer Gynt before seeing this show, which immediately put me at a disadvantage because it proved quite difficult to grasp Ibsen’s sprawling narrative and I felt as though the aspects of the story that I did catch were being recapped and explained to me rather than unfolding actively before me. I think had I had a strong foundation of the story it would have allowed me a richer understanding of Batdorf’s production. There were audience members that I observed who were obviously experiencing the play on a “higher” plane than I was, likely because while I was grasping for plot points, they were taking in the more subtle insights into the playwright’s work.
Susan Coyne played Peer Gynt and I mostly connected to her performance. I felt that Peer was a rogue, a vagrant, a braggart, a scheming imp-scamp who scurried across the world for his own selfish, bold exploits. I wasn’t as invested in Peer as I had expected, mostly because I feel like Batdorf did not give ample time to each individual adventure for the audience to be adequately submerged and connected to the experience. Instead we were being continually lurched from one destination to the next, hauled prematurely from characters we had just become interested in, like a child plucked too soon from a warm bath. Coyne captured a nice boyish cockiness, and a youthful immaturity that traveled with Peer from place to place, yet she was also successful in showing him grow world-weary as time ticked away.
It was Matthew Romantini as “everyone else” that spawned the most questions for me. I must confess; I am a little surprised that other theatre critics who saw this show have made no mention of any of my (seemingly) basic concerns. Perhaps I have failed to notice an essential directorial choice which will illuminate what I saw as Romantini’s strange choices. It is difficult to play dozens of characters in rapid succession, but it is not a rare feat, by any stretch of the imagination. From the cast of The Simpsons, to Rick Miller, Robin Williams, Maja Ardal, Anusree Roy and dozens of improvisers across the city, what becomes so essential to these performers is the creation of strong, unique, individuals so that no matter how rapidly one transitions from one to the other, it is always exceptionally (and often almost magically) clear who is speaking. It seemed so strange to me that in Peer Gynt, Romantini seemed to play nearly every single one of his dozens of characters (including dairymaids, trolls, the Devil, old women, young women, thieves, vagabonds, an ugly brat, gnomes, nixies, fathers and daughters) as though they were all diffident effeminate boys. Sometimes they were diffident effeminate boys expressing emotions (ire, scoffing, mild irritation and haughtiness most often), but it was rare that any of his characters became individuals or took on a physicality beyond Romantini’s own. I found that his portrayal of the Mountain King was the most successful, while a scene between Peer and his mother as they travelled toward her death was the most poignant and evocative in the play. There was a time when Romantini switched his vocal timbres nicely to portray three different shipmates, which was impressive, but still lacked the sort of depth that I think is required of Ibsen. Romantini also seems to be an incredibly cerebral performer and at times it seemed as though his focus was so concentrated within his own mind, that he had completely lost the connection with Coyne, to the point of seeming to not be listening to her at all.
The Church of the Holy Trinity is a colossal space and while I found that a lot of Batdorf’s staging was absolutely stunning, following the actors back and forth from one end of the church to the other was too reminiscent for me of playing Stormy Seas in Elementary School gym class. On the other hand, the use of shadows, candles, and brilliant music and sound effects were definite highlights of the production. At times I felt as though I could see what this production of Peer Gynt was trying to do, and all the breathtaking images that it was trying to achieve. Unfortunately, I think in this case I was so distracted and confused that I could not see the forest for the curious, and by times, maddening, trees.