By Michael Hillyer
I am sure that other people have them, also. Those nights when you really want to fall asleep, but for some reason, you just can’t. Try as you might, sleep will not come, and you remain awake in that frustrating twilight state between rest and awareness for what seems like an eternity.
I had one of those nights attending John Doyle’s chamber adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s poetic epic Peer Gynt, now playing in a Spartan modern dress production at Classic Stage Company. I tried to escape the misery of being awake by closing my eyes, but to no avail. Counting sheep didn’t help. Tossing and turning was not an option, as there were people sitting next to me, so I sat there quietly and waited for it to stop. Eventually it did, after an intermission-less two hours, and I was able to kick back the sheets and leave.
I’d like to tell you something about the show, but I honestly haven’t got a clue what they were doing. Mr. Doyle’s adaptation reduces Ibsen’s sprawling opus into a pint-sized Reader’s Digest version of its former self, so instead of the vast cast of characters the playwright had imagined for Peer Gynt (over forty speaking parts, plus numerous other trolls, witches, gnomes, elves, goblins, ships crews, asylum inmates etc.) we get only seven: Peer Gynt (the excellent Gabriel Ebert), Solveig (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Mother (Becky Ann Baker), Undertaker (Adam Heller), Bride (Jane Pfitsch), Doctor (Dylan Baker), and Bridegroom (George Abud). Of course, these actors are tasked to play more than one role, but after the first scene it is never clear who they now are, where we are, or what is going on. Even when the stage is practically empty, Ibsen’s lines still come flying at you from the purlieus of the theatre, sometimes from actors perched in the audience or standing on ladders behind it. This sense of dislocation permeates the production, except for one scene of great simplicity late in the day, when Gabriel Ebert has a scene with an onion. But by then it is too late; like that onion, this peeled-back Peer Gynt is hollow at the core.
The actors are all quite good and perform with confidence, and the veteran design team has afforded Mr. Doyle a creditable playing space in which to mount this minimalist distillation, but it doesn’t amount to anything remotely coherent, either in the moment or in later recollection.
Perhaps if you are an Ibsen scholar you will be able to follow the shreds of the plot that remain, but as a director Mr. Doyle does not seem interested in telling a story of any kind, except perhaps as an internal voyage made by the title character. Whatever. I’ll just say it. I can’t recommend this. I would even encourage you to stop reading this review, so you can avoid wasting any more time on this pointless production. If you are a subscriber, or have already purchased tickets, I would urge you to prepare in advance. Before the show, have a couple of cocktails and a nice big dinner, and when you get to your seat, just close your eyes and hope for the best.
Peer Gynt By Henrik Ibsen. Directed & Adapted by John Doyle. With: George Abud, Becky Ann Baker, Dylan Baker, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Gabriel Ebert, Adam Heller, Jane Pfitsch. Scenic Design by David L. Arsenault, Costume Design by Ann Hould-Ward, Lighting Design by Jane Cox, Original Music and Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier. Tickets are available at classicstage.org or by calling (212) 352-3101, or at the box office at Classic Stage Company 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY 10003. Playing through June 19th.