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Theater review: 'Peer Gynt' at La Jolla Playhouse

July 11, 2011 |  8:45 am

Peer gynt 1 

The usual reminder about turning off cellphones had an unusual — and telling — preface at the new production of “Peer Gynt” at the La Jolla Playhouse on Saturday afternoon. The play, we were informed, normally runs five hours, but this version, adapted and directed by David Schweizer, is only about two, not including intermission.

In other words, this was our lucky day — a three-hour reduction of tiresome old Henrik Ibsen. I guess it didn’t occur to anyone at the La Jolla Playhouse that its patrons could just as easily have arranged an afternoon with no Ibsen whatsoever. As someone who counts the Norwegian trailblazer among his top five playwrights and who can vouch that some of the most grueling theatrical experiences are of the intermissionless 90-minute variety, I was unable to take much solace from the announcement.

Nor were my spirits raised in the production’s opening moments when the five-person ensemble huddled around a book and, in an exaggerated fashion, started performing the enclosed tale of the overgrown adolescent Peer Gynt in perpetual search for his elusive self. Some of you may care for this brand of story theater, which acts out a narrative in a cornball style aimed squarely at our inner toddlers. When I read a novel, poem or play, I don’t tend to imagine it as a cartoon. And when I see a performance of a literary work, I’d rather the director and actors not assume that I need a spoonful of sugar to make each medicinal plot point go down.

Peer gynt 2All of this is to say that I didn’t get much from this “Peer Gynt,” a co-production between La Jolla Playhouse and Kansas City Repertory Theatre, except the sense that the performers were trying to put me in good spirits with their playful antics. They’re an amiable bunch, to be sure, but ultimately I felt that it was I who was obliged to humor them by going along with this miniaturizing effort.

The set by David Zinn, boasting two armoires, a sled, hanging reindeer horns and a few other whimsical pieces, aspires to put us in a C.S. Lewis state of mind, in which a mere wardrobe can open the way to childhood fantasy. But the stage looked to me more like a half-empty showroom at the furniture store H.D. Buttercup.

Schweizer has apparently been obsessed with Ibsen’s dramatic poem for his “entire creative life,” and there’s no doubt he knows the text inside out. Themes are carefully bullet-pointed, and the all-important symbol of the onion, which when peeled vanishes without revealing a core, is allowed to hover in the air as a representation of the dilemma Peer faces regarding his own identity.

Occupying a central place in the production are the trolls, who attempt to trap Peer in their lifestyle of appetite, and the scary Buttonmoulder, who wants to melt down his soul in a cauldron with all the other “superficial” sinners who aren’t even notable enough for a place in hell. The trolls are particularly well served by Schweizer’s fabulist approach, which is made all the more colorful by Christina Wright’s winningly preposterous costumes.

There’s an easy fluidity to the staging that allows three of the actors to take turns playing Peer. Danny Gavigan is the anchor for the protagonist, but Luis Moreno and Evan Zes assume the role at different points. This strategy accentuates Peer’s struggle to understand himself, but it also lessens our investment in his character. Our imaginations are encouraged to remain active, but our sympathy is diffused. (Birgit Huppuch and Kate Cullen Roberts round out a cast that prizes liveliness over subtlety.)

Composer Ryan Rumery, who also serves as sound designer, provides folksy music that, venturing in a direction far removed from Edvard Grieg’s famous score, is like the equivalent of an American quilt. This is deployed in a way that compounds the sentimentality of the play’s ending, in which Peer is united with the love of his life, the infinitely patient Solveig (Huppuch, who also plays Peer’s by turns castigating and worshiping mother). Tears are urged, but my eyes remained stubbornly dry as I was led to consider Solveig as an advanced case of pathological codependence — a sure sign that something is amiss with the language and tone of this adaptation.

The production has clever moments (one of Peer’s far-flung adventures is treated as a kind of foreign movie that’s been imperfectly dubbed), but the ingenuity doesn’t bring us deeper into Ibsen’s vision. Like Peer and his onion, this experience pares a classic until there’s nothing left but thin air.

--Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

 charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

"Peer Gynt," La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 24. $41-$69. (858) 550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Photos: Top: (l-r) Danny Gavigan, Kate Cullen Roberts, Luis Moreno, Evan Zes and Birgit Huppuch. Bottom: Huppuch and Gavigan. Credit: Don Ipock

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