by John Olson
As a 17-year-old American visiting London, Jeremy Wechsler saw a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt at Britain’s National Theatre and has never been able to get the play out of his head since. “I was amazed by the scope of it,” he says,” but also by the way it broke my image of Ibsen. I knew Ibsen for the social realism of Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, so the poeticism and mythology of Peer Gynt was really unexpected for me.” Peer Gynt takes Norwegian legends and folklore and builds them into an epic legend of a man’s search for his identity; involving nearly 50 characters, 40 scenes and blending fantasy with reality – the real and the surreal. Wechsler had long wanted to direct a production of it and tried to get one mounted in 1995, but says, “It was just too big of a show to do. The size of the cast and technical requirements made it too expensive for companies operating under union contracts, and its demands are beyond the resources of most non-Equity companies. When Richard Engling approached me about directing it for Polarity at the DCA Storefront Theater, I thought this might actually be the opportunity to do it.”
Peer Gynt is in many ways a natural for Polarity Ensemble Theatre, given its focus on new interpretations of classics (as well as productions of new plays). Artistic Director Richard Engling had a connection to the new adaptation of the piece, having met its adapter, the poet Robert Bly, through Bly’s work in the men’s movement. With sixteen actors in the ensemble, there was no trouble casting the 40 roles (with some multiple casting), but the company’s home theater in the Josephinum Academy was simply too small for this epic. However, when Polarity was chosen to stage Peer Gynt in the much larger and better equipped space of the DCA Storefront Theater at 66 E. Randolph, all the pieces fell into place.
The challenges of staging Peer Gynt are nothing new. In fact, the play’s first production wasn’t mounted until 1876, nine years after it was first published. It’s been acknowledged that Ibsen wrote the play without regard for the theatrical stagecraft of his day. Wechsler says “Ibsen’s influences on Peer Gynt were opera, not the theater of his time.” The action moves almost cinematically between time and space, between the conscious and the unconscious. It was Ibsen’s last play to be written in verse, a form which Bly’s adaptation uses as well. Despite these differences from Ibsen’s best-known plays, Wechsler says, “Peer Gynt is sufficiently idiosyncratic among Ibsen’s play that anyone seriously interested in his writing has to pay attention to it.” The Polarity Ensemble production, running through December 18 at the DCA Storefront Theater, will be one of the rare opportunities to see this significant piece by one of the acknowledged “fathers of modern drama.”
Read more about it at http://petheatre.com/peergynt.html.