Archive for November, 2011

Polarity Ensemble Theatre Brings New Translation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt to Chicago

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011
Jeremy Wechsler

Jeremy Wechsler

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

Richard Engling, Erica Bittner and Bryson Engelen. Photo by John W. Sisson.

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.

Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – Norwegian trolls have their say about 21st Century greed and Wall Street

Thursday, November 10th, 2011
Jeremy Wechsler

Jeremy Wechsler

by John Olson

At first glance, Peer Gynt seems very different from Henrik Ibsen’s later and more frequently produced plays (among them A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, and An Enemy of the People), which are known for their realism and social criticism. For one, it’s written in verse and moves from reality to fantasy – borrowing liberally from Norwegian fairy tales rather than being firmly grounded in the stage realism which Ibsen pioneered. Still, director Jeremy Wechsler contends it not only remains emblematic of Ibsen’s later plays in its criticism of 19th Century European society, but is equally biting about our present culture. “What Ibsen’s plays share,” Wechsler says, “is an examination of the stories we tell ourselves as a culture, and a questioning of the validity of those stories. Peer Gynt, though based on a fairy tale, is concerned with a man’s struggle to cope with his family’s belief that it is his destiny to become wealthy, whatever the cost. It resembles Ibsen’s later plays in its challenge of the social mores of the time. Peer is told by his family that he is exceptional and must achieve great financial success, but by the end of the play he learns that he’s just like everyone else. And what does he do now that he has this knowledge?”

Richard Engling and Bryson Engelen as old and young Peer Gynt

Richard Engling and Bryson Engelen as old and young Peer Gynt. Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

Wechsler believes Peer Gynt has parallels to America today and the concept of “American Exceptionalism.” He says, “In an era when the US is deeply in debt to foreign countries and unemployment is at historically high levels, can we still view America as a global leader? And if we’re not the global leader, then what are we? When our cultural expectations are taken away, what do we do – form a new cultural expectation?”

Another parallel to today is in Peer Gynt‘s questioning the morality of the “wealth at any cost” belief system. Gynt, throughout his journeys, amasses a fortune (before ultimately losing it), but he hurts a lot of people in the process. This echoes current criticisms by participants of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and others that charge America’s financial industry with generating massive profits through predatory practices at the expense of the masses.

The societal pressure to succeed in material terms has been particularly focused on men, Wechsler says. Ibsen’s treatment of this cultural expectation is amplified in the translation by Robert Bly that will be performed for this production. Bly, as not only an award-winning poet, but a leading writer of the men’s movement was particularly well suited to ask “what does it mean to be an American male?”

Though Ibsen changed the face of theater, his sharp social commentary hasn’t changed human nature or behaviors. His insights remain relevant nearly 150 years after they were written, and as translated into contemporary American idioms by Robert Bly, their applicability to today will be apparent to audiences of this new version and production of Peer Gynt.

Read more about it at http://petheatre.com/peergynt.html.