Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Norwegian drama

Review | Peer Gynt | By Henrik Ibsen | Directed and Adapted by John Doyle | Classic Stage Company

… what’s the hurry ? …

This Classic Stage production of Peer Gynt, adapted by John Doyle, should be called Peer Gynt Shortened and Simplified.

This is a shrunken version of the epic verse drama which Ibsen wrote in five acts with approximately 50 characters, about a self-centered and hyper imaginative (“dreams of glory”) man who roams a good part of the earth including a trip to an underworld of trolls.  In this version there’s less of everything, fewer scenes, abbreviated episodes, fewer characters … and the violin music is evocative but thin compared with the symphonic character of Edvard Grieg’s original score.  A bright spot of the production is the fine acting of Gabriel Ebert as Peer.

Like his father before him, who frittered away a fortune and abandoned his wife and son, Peer is trouble through and through. He scorns a promising bride and then abducts her from her wedding with another man, the first of the women he skips out on.  Banished from his community for the abduction, he lands in the under-the-mountain realm of the Troll King who provides Peer with a motto:  “Be true to yourself and to hell with the world.”  One of the many ambiguities of the play is that Peer didn’t really need the motto – he was already a prime egoist.  Another ambiguity is the very question of whether the episode among the trolls “really happened” or was a figment of Peer’s imagination, the question that runs through most episodes of the play.

Perhaps that’s why in Classic Stage’s program for the play, the Cast lists only seven characters – seven!  The play has over fifty!  Those listed are of Peer’s village, perhaps under the assumption that all the others are only imagined by Peer and thus don’t need to be listed – what a simplification that is!  And it’s indicative of the reductionist approach of this production to Ibsen’s vast play.  Even if Peer imagines the others, or some of the others, they’re still characters, for Pete’s sake!  So, if you know the play, you’ll be surprised to see no Button-molder on the list of characters, that devilish figure prepared to melt down Peer’s soul into indistinguishable nothingness with the rest of ordinary humanity – he’s not listed because, I guess, he’s “just imagined.”

The saintly-like pure woman who loves him is Solveig (whom he first encounters at the wedding where he “ruined” the bride).  He has a brief idyll with Solveig in a remote mountain cabin but an old mountain woman from Peer’s time spent among the trolls turns up with her troll-human hybrid child – Peer’s misbegotten son conceived through his “thought.” Through this child born not of a sexual act but of sexually lustful thoughts, Ibsen represents the Northern European Protestant idea that thoughts alone – not just deeds but mental imaginings, fantasies and desires – can determine guilt.  This intrusion from Peer’s sinful past provokes him to abandon Solveig (who, however, continues to love him and appears at the end in a kind of redeeming role).

After a time as a successful merchant – slave trading and the like — Peer is robbed and abandoned in North Africa.  Alone amidst the harsh elements of nature like King Lear on the heath, he finds his way to his true “empire,” an insane asylum where everyone is like him in living in a private world – the mad being the ultimate egoists, as Peer understands it.  Among the adventures beyond the madhouse is a climactic terrifying shipwreck, and the mysterious encounter with the Satanic-like agent, the Button-molder, ready melt him down indiscriminately in his ladle, with whom Peer attempts a Faustian-like negotiation.

In the role of Peer, Gabriel Ebert runs the gamut of human experience and of affect and emotion.  He’s tall and virile, clownish and pixy-like, adult and childlike, ranging through these transformations with wit, understanding, and extraordinary physical and emotional energy.  In spite of the minimizing of the play itself, one can see through Gabriel Ebert’s dramatic characterization Ibsen’s monumental character of Peer Gynt.  It would be great to see Ebert in a fully realized version of this tantalizing, confusing, and iconic drama.

Two hours with no intermission.  What’s the hurry anyhow?

Classic Stage, some years ago, staged Target Margin’s ambitious and thoroughgoing production of Goethe’s Faust.  Peer Gynt is in many ways comparable to Faust in its egoistic, hedonistic central figure and his multi-faceted life-voyage, its mystic overtones, symbolic characters, philosophic resonances and ambiguities.  I wish Classic Stage had brought to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt a similar broad, determined embrace of the play’s epic scope and complexities. Without that, and in spite of Ebert’s great efforts, the play seems irrelevant … even silly.

Peer Gynt plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s  East Village through June 19, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Jean Lichty at the early feminist NORA, and Todd Gearhart as her husband, Torvald in Bergman's NORA after Ibsen's A Doll's House

Review | Nora | by Ingmar Bergman | After Ibsen’s A Doll’s House | Directed by Austin Pendleton

… a doll’s household … 

Jean Lichty at the early feminist NORA, and Todd Gearhart as her husband, Torvald in Bergman's NORA after Ibsen's A Doll's House

Todd Gearhart as Torvald and Jean Lichty as Nora. Photo Carol Rosegg

In the name of “crystallization,” Bergman’s paring down of Ibsen’s compelling play with its early feminist theme sticks to the plot but gives us fewer ways to know the characters.  It puts major, inner change on fast forward — making for an unconvincing drama.

In trimming down the play, Bergman omits the servants and the three children.  We’re told once that the children are with the nanny but never see Nora with her children, so when, in leaving Thorwald, she abandons her children, any conflict she may have is totally distant.  And how do these people eat?  She doesn’t cook or clean, a small mending job seems beyond her, and no servants appear either:  there’s no sense of a functioning household, although the nature of this doll’s house – and doll’s household — is of central importance.

In eliminating the nanny, Anne-Marie, Bergman has omitted a character with thematic importance in Ibsen’s play.  Anne-Marie had cared for Nora as a child and now tends Nora’s children and, for this employment, had given up her own, illegitimate  daughter to the care of others. Ann-Marie’s story is important enough for Nora to call it a “tragedy.”

Anne-Marie’s story is a thought provoking counterpoint to Nora’s. own story  As a woman of the lower class, under duress of poverty and the stigma of an illegitimate child, Anne-Marie gave up her daughter in order to take on the position of caring for children better placed in society.  Nora gives hers up in order to fulfill her thrust toward freedom and self actualization.  Is one kind of duress more powerful than the other?  More worthy?  More easy to accept?

In another inflection of the theme of motherhood, Nora’s childless friend Christine joins the widowed Nils Krogstad so that his children will have a mother and she will have a purpose in caring for others:  elimination of the character of Anne-Marie severs one leg from this tripod of meanings.

Torvald looses much of his sexist pomposity in Bergman’s version, making him less obnoxious, and more attractive, and more like a man who could pay attention.  Yes, he let Nora down but, as Christine knows, nobody’s perfect including her marginally criminal Krogstad.  But that has no effect on Nora.

Bergman sets the final confrontation between Torvald and Nora in the marital bedroom , a good idea but it’s here awkwardly staged.  Under the onslaught of Nora’s defiant speech – she’s dressed to leave, he’s nude in a super obvious  visualization of his new vulnerability —  this mature man  “covers up his nakedness” like a sinful Adam, wrapping himself in a blanket.  And since he seems like a man who could perhaps learn, Nora’s adamant decision harder than ever to accept.

The upshot is, he looks like a jerk and she seems cuckoo.

Events unfold so fast  in this trimmed version that Nora’s lengthy speech to Torvald at the end, in which she explains that how she must free herself in order to come to know herself, seems ideological — she sounds like she just completed a course on feminism —  rather than being an emanation of her developing character.

Nora, Torvald, Christine and Krogstad are almost always on stage, moving back and to the fore as their scenes are foreground, giving a good sense of the tight link between past and present.  Jean Lichty brings out the flighty responsiveness and also the womanly strength of Nora – she reminded me of Jennifer Jones as Madame Bovary.  Todd Gearhart manages to convey Torvald’s sense of male entitlement with humor and wit.

Jean Lichty as the early feminist Nora and George Morfogen as Dr. Rank, whose in love with her.

Jean Lichty as Nora and George Morfogen as Dr. Rank. Photo Carol Rosegg

Larry Bull is appropriately menacing as Nils Krogstad, who turns gently tender when he recognizes another possibility with Christine Linde, played by Andrea Cirie.  The role of the mortally ill Dr. Rank is shortened in Bergman’s version but George Morfogen provides so rich and touching and totally believable a characterization of the smitten but dignified old man he fascinates and looms large.  I’ve seen him in many roles and never better.   Federick L. and Lise-Lone Marker’s translation  from Swedish finds the fine theatrical balance between generalized modern English and the special way people who know each other well, as all of these characters do, use language to express their connectedness.

NORA plays at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village through December 12, 2015.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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