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Peer Gynt

Gabriel Ebert stars in Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, directed by John Doyle, at Classic Stage Company.
Gabriel Ebert stars in Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, directed by John Doyle, at Classic Stage Company.
(© Joan Marcus)


                                                  By Ron Cohen


Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and actor Gabriel Ebert are a match made in heaven.

Add director John Doyle to the mix, and the result – on view at Classic Stage Company -- is consummate and captivating storytelling that overflows its chamber-theater dimensions.  


Ibsen’s five act phantasmagoria of a verse drama is not an easy play to tame. Since it first appeared in 1867, it has confounded as well as dazzled critics. It’s often satirical of society, sometimes symbolic and inherently deeply philosophical, as it questions how a human being should live out his life and be true to his own self – whatever that may be. Its titular hero, based in part on Norwegian legend, travels across continents, from his home in Norway to such far-flung locales as Morocco and Egypt, mixing it up with multitudes of real and fantastical characters. And from beginning to end, Gynt reveals himself to be an irrepressible rogue, a teller of tall tales, a congenital liar, an egoist and a womanizer, as well as an adventurer with an unquenchable thirst for life.


Dylan Baker, Becky Ann Baker, and Gabriel Ebert perform on a stage covered in buttons in Peer Gynt.
Dylan Baker, Becky Ann Baker, and Gabriel Ebert perform on a stage covered in buttons in Peer Gynt.
(© Joan Marcus)


Past productions have run as long as six hours. Doyle’s adaptation has cut things down to an hour and fifty minutes (with no intermission), and the language is colloquial while still retaining a poetic flavor. Most crucially, it has as its magnetic center Ebert’s portrayal of Gynt.


A tall, agile fellow, Ebert, who won a Tony Award for his work in Matilda the Musical, exudes an immediate likeability giving Gynt, despite his lies and braggadocio, a sense of grace. It’s a mercurial charm the character must have to keep an audience with him. And when Gynt is forced to look inward for his true self, Ebert brings an enthralling depth to the role.


The show is staged with the audience on all four sides of a raised platform, most of the time quite barren, with a worn earthen appearance. David L. Arsenault’s set design is enhanced by Jane Cox’s dramatic shifts in lighting. The costuming by Ann Hould-Ward, has, for the most part, a nondescript contemporary look, that matches some of the surprisingly contemporary resonances in the script. At one point, Gynt, who has already made a fortune in America as a slave trader and lost it as well, finds himself in a mad house, where the inhabitants want to proclaim him emperor. It’s hard not to think of our own current presidential election campaign.


The humungous cast of characters that Gynt comes across in his adventures is deftly handled by a company of six other actors, taking on multiple roles. Particularly prominent is the king of the trolls, the supernatural, self-absorbed and sometimes evil beings who inhabit Norse mythology. He is played with a deliciously wry and dry sense of humor, laced with just the faintest hint of menace, by Dylan Baker, as the troll king attempts to transform Gynt into his son-in-law and one of his subjects.


Quincy Tyler Bernstine plays Solveig and Gabriel Ebert plays the title role in Peer Gynt.
Quincy Tyler Bernstine plays Solveig and Gabriel Ebert plays the title role in Peer Gynt.
(© Joan Marcus)


Becky Ann Baker neatly negotiates the mercurial changes of Gynt’s mother, sometimes loving, often scolding, while Quincy Tyler Bernstine makes a sympathetic Solveig, the ever-faithful and redemptive love of Gynt’s life. The other women filling the tale are portrayed by Jane Pfitsch, while the fateful button-molder, who threatens to melt away Gynt’s soul because it’s unworthy of either Heaven or Hell, is given a solid rendering by Adam Heller. George Abud plays an assortment of other males, including a fellow who may well by the Devil.


Some of Doyle’s musical productions have been marked by actors also playing instruments as part of their characters. Here Pfitsch and Abud sometimes pick up violins to provide underscoring. As is also Doyle’s wont, props are minimal, but when they are used, the result can be forceful. For example, there’s the blizzard of dollar bills that Gynt throws into the air to announce his accumulation of wealth. And most crucially, there’s the onion that Gynt picks up toward the end of the play in his effort to make sense of his life. Simply staged and brilliantly played, it’s an indelibly classic moment, as Gynt, peels away layer after layer in a vain search to find the center. “There isn’t one!,” he finally declares. “Just a series of layers getting smaller and smaller! Nature’s little joke!”


Doyle’s compression in staging and adapting often has one incident bleed into another with some loss of clarity. But the theatricality stays intact, even as it requires the audience to go with the flow rather than fully comprehend every turn of the narrative. Doyle is also asking the audience to fill in gaps with their own imaginations. In an interview in the periodic brochure for Classic Stage Company, where Doyle is taking over as artistic director, he says: “I am really interested in developing some kind of house style where the audience recognizes that if they come to a CSC production they’re going to have to do some work. They’re going to have to activate their imaginations when they come into the space.”


As his Peer Gynt proves, it’s a prescription that can make for terrific theater.


Playing at Classic Stage Company

136 East 13th Street

212 352 3101/866 811 4111

Playing until June 19