A commanding sequence in the second act of the Guthrie’s emotionally sprawling production of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” has Mark Rylance alone onstage as the titular wanderer. His character aged and stamped by experience, the actor peels away at an onion with a paring knife, holding forth on the layers of the human character while lamenting his inability to find a unified core. He speaks haltingly, then confidently, looking into the audience and making eye contact with his observers with a loose, improvisational feel.
It’s the kind of moment that has to be earned, and Rylance amply pays his dues along the way in Robert Bly’s new adaptation. Originally composed as more a long-form poem than conventional drama, Ibsen’s scenario sees Peer the fabulist move from his native Norway to a mythic land of trolls, to the deserts of the Middle East, to a madhouse, and to a ship tossed on raging seas before returning home.
A conventional staging of this mix of myth and folklore would threaten to run aground, though in this imagining director Tim Carroll opts for a strategy of understatement, placing the action on a wood-heavy barn-like set with minimal props.
Before Ibsen’s action starts, the cast appears in the house while the audience files in, informing theatergoers that they have convened for a surprise 50th birthday party for Peter Gynt, a sad-sack functionary at a Midwestern corporation (who, after receiving his surprise, promptly collapses and imagines all that comes after).
What could have been a clunky device here intensifies a sense of intimacy and looseness, not to mention considerable humor. Bly leans hard on Ibsen’s rhythmic rhyming couplets in his translation, and Rylance combines total facility with his poetic recitation and a sense of transformation as the night goes along, moving from an early blank youthfulness to weary approximation of wisdom as Peer recounts his years as a slave trader, scholar, and, briefly, New Age guru to a gaggle of comely desert women.
Isabell Monk O’Connor anchors the first act as Peer’s mother Asa, her death scene offering up warmth as Peer tells her a final tall tale. Tracey Maloney also functions as a fine foil as the Troll Princess whom Peer seduces, listening to his ribald boasting with primal eagerness.
In this extremely masculine show, the wedding of the sensual with the humorous reaches its peak with Peer seducing his desert cohorts, telling them, “Don’t be alarmed, that’s just the Kundalini energy rising.”
None of which is to suggest this production offers conventional emotional payoff; by the end, Peer is wandering around his old haunts, trying to gather testimony of his misdeeds to earn a ticket to Hell rather than have his soul melted down and anonymously recycled. But as a sheer ride, the combination of Bly’s translation with Rylance’s assurance and questing approach to his character make this three hours pass with intellectual charge and a pleasing emotional ambiguity.
While this staging strips down its material trappings, a three-piece ensemble provides apt musical shades to replace original “Gynt” composer Edvard Grieg’s more sweeping accents, and the plain set becomes more elaborate when its floorboards warp and shift under Rylance’s feet during the desert sequence.
By the end, when Peer collapses into the arms of his neglected, beloved Solveig (Miriam Silverman), we get a real sense of the fury beating in the heart of his frozen northern soul. We come away drawing no neat conclusions, but with the sense that this idiosyncratic take on a prickly work might well verge on the definitive.