×

Peer Gynt

There is no way in hell to stage "Peer Gynt" in a way that would make Ibsen's monumental epic drama accessible to anyone who didn't grow up on the fabulous legend of this Norwegian folk hero. But there is a way to stage it beautifully, and that Robert Wilson does, in a sumptuous four-hour banquet of music, dance, theater and spectacle that is absolutely ravishing.

With:
Peer (as a young man) - Henrik Rafaelsen Peer (as a grown man) - Endre Hellestveit Peer (as an old man) - Sverre Bentzen Ase - Wenche Medboe Solveig - Kjersti Sandal Anitra - Gjertrud Jynge

There is no way in hell to stage “Peer Gynt” in a way that would make Ibsen’s monumental epic drama accessible to anyone who didn’t grow up on the fabulous legend of this Norwegian folk hero. But there is a way to stage it beautifully, and that Robert Wilson does, in a sumptuous four-hour banquet of music, dance, theater and spectacle that is absolutely ravishing. That it is also utterly exhausting should not deter anyone who sat enthralled through 11 hours of “Einstein on the Beach” at BAM, or the entire “Ring” cycle in Zurich.

As Norwegian legend has it, Peer Gynt was the gifted son of a drunken father and an impoverished mother who can’t be tied down to the life of a peasant because “he is meant for greatness.” And greatness he achieves, over a hell-raising lifetime of adventure as, among other things, a religious prophet, a Bedouin chieftain, a profiteering merchant and the resident “Emperor” of a madhouse.

In Ibsen’s verse drama, the wanton cruelty of Peer’s egocentric exploits are justifiable because, as a folk hero, his job is to define the national identity of his people. In fact, the play’s most indelible image is of Peer sitting alone at the end of his journey, peeling an onion that he likens to himself, looking for the core of identity that has eluded him all his life — but finding nothing more than one more superficial layer of skin.

In Wilson’s treatment, the journey itself is the core of the hero. And while lip service is paid to the universal quest for identity, by the time the worn-out hero returns home to peel that iconic onion, the director has pretty much run out of brilliant staging ideas.

But before the letdown of the later scenes, Wilson manages to fill the huge stage of the BAM Opera House with feats of stagecraft astonishing for both their beauty and originality.

Pacing himself to the haunting music of Michael Galasso, Wilson rolls out scene after scene against a giant backdrop that pulses with color. As Peer confronts the trolls, wizards and other fabulous creatures that inhabit his magical world, painterly projections splash across the screen, changing the mood as they shift the locale from forest to desert to sea.

Silhouetted against this eerie landscape in their gorgeously sculpted costumes and white-out makeup, the actors look like demented puppets who have chewed through their strings. Their stylized movement is equally extraordinary, a combination of dance, mime and robotic gesture that takes the characters well beyond the realm of realism.

For once, Wilson has come up with a verbal idiom to match his visual brilliance. Working with classically trained actors from the National Theater of Bergen and the Norwegian Theater of Oslo, the director has heightened the foreignness of their native Norwegian language by drawing out the vowel sounds into an otherworldly dialect that’s downright eerie.

Even under these restrictions, the thesps are mesmerizing. Henrik Rafaelsen, as the young Peer, has the fluid moves of a trained dancer. Wenche Medboe, a positive fright in her early scenes as Peer’s mother, Ase, plays a beatific death scene that is the most realistic and moving moment in a production of countless moments worthy of recall. And Kjersti Sandal, as Peer’s beloved Solveig, has the voice of a lark.

One does wonder, though, what Ibsen would make of it all.

Popular on Variety

Peer Gynt

BAM Opera House; 2,100 seats; $80 top

Production: A Brooklyn Academy of Music presentation of a co-production of the National Theater of Bergen and the Norwegian Theater of Oslo of a play in two acts by Henrik Ibsen. Conceived and directed by Robert Wilson; co-director, Ann-Christin Rommen. Music by Michael Galasso.

Creative: Lighting and stage design, Robert Wilson; costumes and makeup, Jacques Reynaud; dramaturg and English titles, Monica Ohlsson; production stage manager, Per Berg-Nilsen. Performed in Norwegian with English supratitles. Opened, reviewed April 11, 2006. Running time: 3 HOURS, 50 MIN.

Cast: Peer (as a young man) - Henrik Rafaelsen Peer (as a grown man) - Endre Hellestveit Peer (as an old man) - Sverre Bentzen Ase - Wenche Medboe Solveig - Kjersti Sandal Anitra - Gjertrud Jynge

More Legit

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at Age 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

  • Jagged Little Pill Business of Broadway

    Listen: How 'Jagged Little Pill' Will Rock Broadway

    “Jagged Little Pill” wasn’t originally written with Broadway in mind — but the songs on Alanis Morissette’s smash-hit 1995 album do exactly what good musical theater songs should do, according to the upcoming show’s creators and producers. Listen to this week’s podcast below: The team explained why on Variety‘s theater podcast, “Stagecraft,” in an episode [...]

  • Stephen Moore

    Stephen Moore, 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' Android, 'Doctor Who' Actor, Dies at 81

    Stephen Moore, best known for his roles as the paranoid android Marvin in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” radio series and the Silurian Eldane in “Doctor Who,” has died. He was 81. “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” producer Dirk Maggs confirmed Moore’s death Saturday on Twitter, writing, “Our dear friend Stephen Moore has [...]

  • Ben Platt Variety Power of New

    Ben Platt on Coming Out and the Queerness of 'The Politician'

    Ben Platt never imagined he would one day star in a series like “The Politician.” “I didn’t think I could be a star of a show in general starting out. I think I was like, ‘I’ll do Broadway. I can be on stage and I can play Jimmy in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and Nathan Detroit [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content