Walter Mencken 10:06 a.m., Feb. 6
Peer Gynt at La Jolla Playhouse
Henrik Ibsen's evasive masterpiece (1867) has five, hour-long acts, around 50 characters, and more locations than most movies. At the La Jolla Playhouse, director David Schweizer has trimmed the play - really trimmed it - to two hours and five actors. The results, though often funny, feel like a performance of the Reduced Ibsen Company.
Similar to Odysseus, who also has a faithful woman waiting for him, Peer Gynt roams for years. Ulysses just wants to return home. Peer blazes forth ego-first. A liar, a braggart, a corner-cutter, he cares nothing for morals, ethics, and the rights of others (Ibsen said he's a model for Norwegian male selfishness). He "lives for himself and himself alone" with world-class entitlement.
Peer seduces a bride on her wedding day, and dumps her; he impregnates the daughter of a troll, and dumps them. He traffics in African slaves (a fact the production omits), becomes a shiek, and dreams of turning the world into "Peeropolis."
Each episode resembles the layer of an onion. The play unpeels Peer. In the end there's nothing left, says the Button Moulder, but "waste matter."
In a subtle tease of an ending, Peer may, or may not, have achieved redemption/salvation.
A co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the staging is always inventive and amusing. The props are "found" items: a neon palm tree, a porcelain pig cruising overhead on a clothes line. They're humble. But the play has a wild, soaring, epic sweep. Too often the players swap cute for deeper resonances.
All five actors are quite good. They work in different styles and speak prose, verse, and modern slang. These choices show Ibsen's astonishing range. But too much of the humor - jokes and visual business - comes from outside the text.
After a while what the actors will do next trumps where the play is going.