Among the pleasures provided by EgoPo Classic Theater’s season devoted to Henrik Ibsen has been an opportunity to revel in the astonishing breadth of his work. Psychologist, satirist, poet — master of realism, symbolism, melodrama — the great Norwegian playwright was all these and more.
And no play is a greater compendium of Ibsen’s gifts than Peer Gynt, in many ways his magnum opus, an epic-scale picaresque adventure that traces a young man’s journey of self-discovery.
Or perhaps it would be closer to call it self-invention, since the character of Gynt appropriates and manufactures stories of his life as he moves along — he’s the ultimate self-made man. Gynt endures hardship and good fortune, and lives well into old age — but precisely who he is and what he believes in remains elliptical until the play’s end, or even beyond.
The size and complexity of Peer Gynt, as well as its cultural unfamiliarity for Americans (the story is based on Norwegian myths and fairy tales) has rendered it rarely produced in the U.S. — though many theater fans have heard of it, few have actually seen it. It’s more familiar through Edvard Grieg’s musical score, which includes the perennial hits “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and “Morning Mood.”
Grieg’s score is not heard here, though music plays a very significant role. Director Lane Savadove has chosen to stage Romulus Linney’s imaginative rethinking of Gint, which recreates the hero as Pete Gint, and moves the story to the Appalachian Mountains in 1917.
The choice of Linney’s adaptation, and Savadove’s masterful staging, make for compelling theater.
The first thing we hear is Stephen Foster’s heart-rending “Hard Times Come Again No More,” (very beautifully sung here by an ensemble of gifted singing actors) — but those hard times come again and again. Gint’s voyage is often poignant, and the leave-taking from his beloved mother — the person who gives him a grounded identity — frames the first act. Linney translates Gint’s world to a viscerally American one — we’re reminded of the great Dust Bowl photos by Dorothea Lange — and Savadove builds on it with marvelously imaginative and beautiful images.
Very occasionally, he and the ensemble actors go too far in trying to capture a kind of hokey charm — they look like the slack-jawed, bug-eyed denizens of Green Acres (demeaning stereotypes are not the same thing as mythic archetypes).
But the quieter moments are effective and affecting. Sean Lally is a highly accomplished Gint — charming us (as he must) even when we know he’s untrustworthy. Melanie Julian is lovely as his mother, and Isa St. Clair as Sally Vicks, the long-term object of Gint’s idealized love, manages to turn an icon into a believable flesh-and-blood woman.
In the second act, Linney’s script wanders (literally and figuratively) further afield — the action moves to Hollywood in the ’60s, and the satire turns heavy-handed and didactic. But Savadove’s directorial invention never wavers, and there are some telling moments, as well as a superb performance by Ed Swidey.
In short, Gint is a major achievement by a company that is notable for its bold, intellectually bracing work — and a suitably triumphant finale for their season.
Speaking of bold choices, I’m struck by Savadove’s decision to stage variant versions of all three Ibsen plays EgoPo staged this season. His A Doll’s House and Lady from the Sea productions both involved substantial directorial departures from the original scripts. Using Linney’s Gint also means a distinctly different work than Ibsen’s original.
Yet I can think of no truer or more admiring tribute to Ibsen than what Savadove and EgoPo put together — a season that at once honors the playwright faithfully, and also celebrates the remarkable way his work can be transformed for other times and contexts.
In the theater, adaptation is sometimes the sincerest form of flattery.
Through May 11, $27-$35, EgoPo Classic Theater at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., 267-273-1414, egopo.org.