Decades ago in a K-TEL informercial, a tweedy British pitchman assured us that a highbrow record collection was “all the classical music your family will ever need.” Swirling around David Schweizer’s distillation of “Peer Gynt” (55% less text! Threescore thesps reduced to five!) is a similar sense of his doling out just enough of the epic masterwork’s themes and incidents to help you get by: Ibsen for Dummies. The Kansas City Rep/La Jolla co-production proves a sourly diverting show, but never a transcendent one.
A ragtag troupe enters a drawing room resembling the set of Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers,” a maroon-walled chamber stocked with antique armoires, a sleigh, bric-a-brac and the inevitable magical trunk serving as props cabinet and versatile set piece. They start reading aloud from a big, fat ,glowing yellow volume, clearly the full Ibsen manuscript.
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But cutting is in the air, for almost immediately loutish Peer is running away from home, seducing and abandoning a young bride and making his way to the castle of the Trolls for a tryout as their dauphin. His adventures get the full Classics Illustrated treatment, briskly whisking us along from incident to incident with mixed results: The Great Boyg encounter amounts to nothing much, though the robber baron convention in Morocco carries some real sting.
The conceit of having three thesps alternate (the script dubs them “Heropeer,” “Conman Peer” and “Crazypeer”) breaks down when Danny “Heropeer” Gavigan is given most of the heavy lifting along the way, resulting in a sentimental, unnuanced portrait of a clueless braggart searching for a sense of Self. This Peer bumbles his way into vast riches through slavetrading and pornography, finally laid low only to realize identity, and happiness, were as close at hand as his own front door.
It would all go down easier if every member of Schweizer’s cast possessed the verbal and physical facility of Kate Cullen Roberts (who unluckily has least to do among the quintet), but after her it’s pretty much hit or miss. Birgit Huppuch’s Mother Ase is a one-dimensional crank, though Huppuch redeems herself with a glowing, Judy Collins-tinged Solveig. Luis Moreno is an amusing Troll King, but Gavigan’s queeny Button-Moulder is just an embarrassment.
Schweizer throws a range of theatrical devices at the narrative, some simple (puppets tugged across stage on wires to represent Peer aboard a flying pig), some elaborate (neon lighting in the Casbah), none particularly unified into a coherent vision of Peer’s world.