May 06, 2011

KC Stage

You’re nobody till somebody loves you
by Greg Boyle

Kansas City Rep closes its season with a surprisingly entertaining version of Peer Gynt, by Henrik Ibsen. Don’t worry; you don’t need to fear stilted language or an overlong evening. Director David Schweizer has adapted the 150-year-old Norwegian play in the style of late 1960s avant-garde theatre, slicing and dicing the script from five hours to two, all the while hewing close to the original in meaning and intent. The language is entirely modern and informal, and costume designer Christina Wright has the performers in simple, up-to-date clothing.

The Troll King confronts Peer Gynt. (Cast members, from left to right) Kate Cullen Roberts, Luis Moreno, Evan Zes. (photos by Don Ipock)

For a long time after it was written in 1867, Peer Gynt was considered the most innovative play in Western European literature. It mixes drama, Nordic folklore, dream sequences and slapstick comedy. Ibsen presents the action surrealistically, with no demarcation between reality and fantasy, waking and dream. Peer Gynt’s themes are commonly likened to Goethe’s Faust, but KC Rep’s production in particular, takes a stylistic shortcut via Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

The eponymous character, far from being a hero, more closely resembles an unrepentant child of the 1960s. Selfish, hedonistic and amoral, wanting to “try everything once,” Gynt remains oblivious to the pain he leaves in his wake. He only feels his own existential angst. Whiny and rebellious when called upon to pay the price for his transgressions, he moves from situation to situation in hopes that the next one will get him what he seeks, whatever that is.

Gynt is haunted by the notion that perhaps only people with strong character or high accomplishment are allowed to enter the afterlife. He embarks on a lifelong odyssey to discover what it means to be “alive.” Along the way, he becomes an entrepreneur, marries a princess, encounters trolls, visits Morocco, and confronts the devil. Yet at no time can he escape the nagging feeling that none of it amounts to anything. In the end, he returns home – broken – only to discover that his quest never required him to leave. He was “alive” because he lived in the heart of Solveig, his virginal inspiration.

The performances are excellent, one and all. Each actor essays multiple roles, with all three men taking turns as Gynt at different life stages. Danny Gavigan, who has the lion’s share of the lead character, is especially charming and engaging, helping us to accept the character’s many peccadilloes. Luis Moreno is at his best as the zany Troll King. Evan Zes gives us many comic moments, most especially as the stuttering, line dancing Mads Moen. Kate Cullen Roberts shines especially as the stolen bride, and Birgit Huppuch shows her versatility as Peer’s long-suffering mother, as his chaste love, and as the Troll Princess.

An outstanding feature of the production was the soundtrack composed by sound designer Ryan Rumery. His simple combination of looping electric guitar and synthesizer riffs gives the piece a light, modern feel, starting from the overture. It sounds as though the music should be called “The Peer Gynt Ramble.”

All told, in spite of the hazards of taking on such an ambitious project, the audience loved this presentation of a classic masterpiece.
Peer Gynt is playing at the KC Rep through May 22 at the Copaken Theatre, in the Bloch Building at 14th Street and Main. For tickets, call the box office at 816-235-2700, or go online at www.KCRep.org.

Greg Boyle can be reached at gbboyle@kc.rr.com