It’s safe to say that most of us are never going to see a more breathtakingly realized Peer Gynt than the one Michael Kahn has conjured at the Lansburgh Theater, nor one that makes clearer why this epic “dramatic poem” by the man who would later invent social realism is so rarely performed.
A physical knockout from the moment the lights come up on its evocative opening imageWallace Acton’s ethereal, teenage Peer grasping at clouds as his earthbound mother frets in their one-room hovelthe Shakespeare Theatre’s staging is at once enormous and intimate. As Ibsen sends Peer on the lifelong journey that will transform him from a youthful idealist and teller of tall tales into a wealthy capitalist whose real-world exploits are every bit as fantastic as the flying-antelope stories he once trafficked in, the company’s designers create a kaleidoscopic world worthy of his adventures.
In quick succession, Erector Set bridges tilt crazily so Peer and someone else’s bride can flee to the mountains, fat-bellied trolls romp and give birth on jungle gyms, feral madwomen sing, wedding guests dance, flaming yachts sink off palm-swept tropical beaches, spectral golden mummies emerge from caverns in an asylum hidden beneath the Sphinx, and Peer and the true love he has vowed never to soil are reunited in what looks like a post-apocalyptic Yellowstone National Park.
Did I mention the enormous chartreuse pig on which our hero rides to meet the father of his troll princess? Or the pompous industrial fat cats from Sweden, Germany, France, and the U.S. who sip martinis with Peer as he plots international intrigue under a bright North African sky? Ibsen was making topical jests about national character when he introduced these figures in 1867, and, against all odds, the jokes still work when Kahn turns them into cartoons in his fever dream of a production.
Peer is ever at the center of that dream. The part is one of the most demanding in all of dramatic literature, taking an actor from callow boyhood to tottering old age and from naiveté to…well, to a different sort of naiveté. For, like all Pans, this Norwegian Peer doesn’t really want to grow up. What he craves toward the end of his life is the same thing he craved at the beginning: to be emperor of all he surveys, to saddle his charger and ride the stars, to find happiness without the pain of involvement or sacrifice. And, of course, in pursuit of those goals, he ends up sacrificing everything that actually matters in life.
Kenneth Tynan once termed the play “a study of the fallacy that is inherent in total dedication to self-fulfillment,” and that about gets its grander outlines right. There’s more to Gynt, of course: the tragedy of wasted courage (for Peer is astonishingly brave in his opportunism), the comedy of ambition, the travails of ambivalence, and the supremely modern dilemma of a man who learns nothing from experience.
That Kahn’s mounting of the play is expansive enough to explore all these aspects of the script is just this side of astonishingor rather, it would be, if the director didn’t display similar breadth of vision every time he approaches Shakespeare. With his production last year of Mourning Becomes Electra, Kahn made a nifty case for taking a classical approach to Eugene O’Neill. Here, in a similar spirit, he tackles the early work of a writer who was about to alter the course of Western drama, unfurling Ibsen’s great stage epic with all its irony and comedy intact.
In interviews, the director has suggested that Ibsen probably drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s mixing of moods and styles in the writing of Peer Gynt. What seems obvious in performance is that Kahn has, in turn, drawn inspiration from Brecht’s mixing of moods and styles in staging it. There’s comic cynicism, exuberant theatricality, and an icy sort of majesty to the proceedingsa combination also found in Kahn’s Mother Courage three seasons ago. The trappings are grander here, and the comedy more embracing, but the impulse is similar. And it helps to explain why the evening, for all its visceral muscularity, doesn’t pack the emotional punch that Kahn’s stagings of Shakespearean epics do. Ibsen is chronicling a life of wrongheaded choices and missed opportunities, but he’s not asking for tears, and Kahn doesn’t provide them.
Nor does Acton. His Peer is mesmerizinga blend of gaunt angularity and wild-eyed impetuousnessfrom the moment he first lies to his mother (Trazana Beverley) about plunging over a cliff and into a lake while astride a deer he’d been hunting. The folks who surround him are written as comparative ciphers, but that doesn’t keep them from making vivid impressions. Beverley’s annoyed mom, Ted van Griethuysen’s dangerously charming Troll King, Floyd King’s silky Devil, Emery Battis’ soul-gathering Button Molder, and Rebecca Waxman’s sweet Solveig, who believes in Peer through decades of neglect, are standouts in a cast without a single weak link.
Paul Tazewell’s extraordinary costumes (his trolls are worthy of Jim Henson), Ming Cho Lee’s deceptively simple settings, and the eerie, splintered lighting provided by Howell Binkley, are also assets. And in the service of Kahn’s vision, they pretty much overcome the fact that this immense play is, in some basic sense, undermined by its message. For if nothing Peer does really takes him very far, and he ultimately ends up back where he started after a lifetime of pointless movement, one might reasonably ask where, exactly, audiences are supposed to find drama?
Shakespeare Theatre finds it in epic sweep and in the passionate rush of poetic language and ferociously theatrical images. Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is, in the words of Rolf Fjelde, who wrote one of its many English translations, an “anti-romantic work that employs the full resources of the romantic theater.” So, in spades, is Kahn’s production.
A masked Harlequin opens each act of The Triumph of Love at Clark Street Playhouse with three thumps of his staff on the stage floor. At the play’s start, he does this with an elegance and sobriety that suggests that Comédie Française classicism will be the mood of the evening. Don’t trust him. The director has more raucous moods in mind.
So much more raucous, in fact, that by the outset of Act 2, Harlequin (Bruce Nelson) is having a nervous breakdown between his second and third thumps, channeling James Cameron’s Titanic in a mind-bending one-man, eight-second pop-culture riff, followed by a brilliantly funny five-second J.F.K., followed by…well, no sense spoiling too many surprises. Suffice it to say that Nelson is hilarious, and that these pre-act shenanigans are just a sideshow.
The main eventwhich involves cross-dressing royals, lusty servants, secret identities, and a clash between heartfelt romance and Age of Reason philosophizingsends Harlequin reeling from pillar to post in Lou Stancari’s forced-perspective setting. By Act 3, he’s pantsless when he emerges to do his thumping. Staffless, tooand all pretense of sobriety is long gone.
Something similar could be said of Pierre Marivaux’s 18th-century play, which begins with much earnest exposition about duplicated miniature portraits and then splinters pretty quickly into a commedia dell’arte free-for-all, complete with manure-filled wheelbarrows into which characters must necessarily careen face-first.
The plot has something to do with a throne-usurping princess (Michelle Shupe) who travels en travesti with a servant (Melissa Flaim) to a country estate where she hopes to ingratiate herself with the deposed prince (Paul Takacs) and then wed him, thereby righting wrongs as she latches on to Mr. Right. To accomplish all this, she must first win over the lad’s guardiansan airy philosopher (Christopher Wilson) and his spinster sister (Brook Butterworth)both of whom she elects to seduce, since they’re so resolutely anti-romance. Meanwhile, her servant must distract Harlequin and a malapropism-spouting gardener (Ian LeValley), who’ve each been instructed to spy on them.
Ethan McSweeny’s staging takes its main cues from a briskly colloquial translation by Stephen Wadsworth in which the puns are as modern (“you are famous for your booty”) as they are erudite (“prude goeth before a fall”). As in McSweeny’s recent staging of the equivalently scattered Leopold and Loeb opus Never the Sinner for Signature Theatre, the directorial emphasis on focusboth visual and thematicis remarkable.
Though the stage is wide opena neat mix of modernist design and classical elements so fractured that they appear to have barely survived an earthquakeyour eye is forever being drawn to certain spots just before characters arrive at them. Two downstage squares on the patterned floor are home to nearly all the philosophical debates on love, a spot farther left is where the servants’ bawdy jokes are mostly told, and so forth. Rather than curdling the comedy with too much structure, the effect is merely to remind patrons that events are following an authorially prescribed arc, no matter how anarchic they seem. Marivaux may have been lampooning the rigidity of thought in the Enlightenment, but McSweeny has found ways for him to do so while adhering to all its rules.
The Washington Shakespeare Company’s smart, stylish performing doesn’t entirely disguise the fact that Marivaux is no Molière. Performance flourishes are all very niceand this cast has plenty of neat tricks up costumer Anne Kennedy’s flouncy sleevesbut theatrical window dressing can do only so much to mask a play’s architecture. No matter how many birds McSweeny & Co. find nesting in the characters’ hair, this play’s exposition is still going to be clumsy and its conclusion overly schematic. Still, with so much that’s sprightly and energetic, no patron is going to mind sitting through a lackluster moment or two at either end of the evening. In its heartas in its heartfelt championing of romancethis Triumph of Love is pretty triumphant.
When Jack and Jill ascend marital hills in the adult, often uproarious comedy named after their nursery rhyme, there’s never the slightest question that they’ll come tumbling back down. Jack (Marty Lodge), sensitized fellow that he is, can barely blurt “hello” in Jill’s presence without tying his syntax in feminism-inspired knots. And Jill (Kathryn Kelley) is constitutionally incapable of rescuing him as he fumbles. Her position as Independent Woman Incarnate permits her only to stare at him in his moments of male mortification as if he has just drooled all over his shirt.
The two are perfectly matched in a No Exit sort of way: They’re guaranteed to torture each other into eternity. Which is why the marriage they stitch together after meeting cute and wooing cuter is coming apart at the seams well before intermission. “Is every waking conversation a male-female issue?” Jack wonders in frustration at one point, only to receive a response (“Is this a good-natured question?”) that makes him sorry he asked.
Playwright Jane Martinwho may be male despite the feminine pen namehas scribbled more than a dozen award-winning plays over the past 16 years. A while back, it was suggested that she might be David Mamet in disguise, but while the dialogue in Jack & Jill crackles with Mametian urgency, it doesn’t suggest his brand of gender animus. It’s bright and issue-oriented more in the manner of a Nichols and May routinerecognizable, if not terribly deep.
At Round House, the cast is exemplary, and Jerry Whiddon’s antic production is spare and cleverly supportive. Kelley’s stammers and backtracking suggest Diane Keaton at her feistiest, while Lodge bears a slight resemblance, as he watches his dreamboat shatter all their crockery piece by piece, to Keaton’s surnamesake Buster. His fear that the universe is surely playing some new and horrible trick on him is suggested by his at-rest-but-battle-ready stance.
The only accouterments allowed them on Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s gleaming, platformed stage are a few props, a stick or two of furniture, and some well-chosen articles of clothing brought on by smiling attendants. Call this minimalism, classicism, or whatever, it’s as theatrically evocative as it is efficient. For when the director’s not using such items to make comic hay, he’s almost always arranging them instructively. Surrounded by a ring of broken plates and stacked books in the division-of-marital-property scene that ends Act 1, the protagonists are a portrait of desolation that might have been conjured by the ancient Greeks. Fortunately, Martin and the folks at Round House have given themand romance in generala very funny Act 2.CP