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PEERING INTO INFINITY: Ibsen classic gets smart, affectionate adaptation for ambitious KC Rep production

Concluding the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 2010-2011 season is Henryk Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, in an adaptation by David Schweizer, who also directs it. The production is already in previews and opens April 29th at the Copaken Stage downtown. David is a prominent figure in American theater who has directed several off-Broadway productions as well as works at Lincoln Center, London’s Barbican Centre and on stages throughout Europe. Regionally he has staged works at TrinityRepertory Company, Arena Stage, Center Stage, Mark Taper Forum, Geffen Playhouse, McCarter Theatre and others. David, who is 61, has had a lifelong fascination with Ibsen’s sprawling masterpiece, which he has reduced to a chamber version using five players and a sound score that eschews, for the most part, Edvard Grieg’s famous music. We recently sat down to chat about Ibsen, Peer, and David’s own 40-year relationship with this play.

Paul: Ibsen’s play has always fascinated me, partly (being a musician) because of Grieg’s well-known music for it. But I can honestly say I’ve never seen a full production of it, as I think probably not many people have.

David: There are good reasons for that. Ibsen had no expectations about its practicality for the stage: he wrote it for some 50 characters, and when performed in its entirety it’s four or five hours. It’s huge. …

He wrote it in a kind of poetic outpouring. It predated by a decade or two his famous, tightly-constructed social melodramas, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabbler and Ghosts and so forth. This was a young man’s ‘wondering’ how to tell a story about the huge questions: Who are we in the universe? … The story has a kind of domestic center in this braggart kid and his “tough-love” mom, and this beautiful pure girl that he becomes obsessed with and falls in love with. But it is also this epic mixture of his dreams and his fantasies and what might or might not be his experiences. And it’s a life cycle.

Is your adaptation partly a response, then, to the sheer unwieldiness of the play?

Yes, but it also honors it. My adaptation for five actors comes out of adoring the play, adoring its unwieldy challenges. As a director I particularly love theater pieces that make absurd challenges to the creative team wanting to stage it. There are other plays like that and they are my favorites—like Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real and Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata. They’re just like too much. As a very young man I fell in love with the idea of doing Peer Gynt,and I actually did the big version as a student at Yale University. … I was in college from 1968 to 1972 … so it was a pretty psychedelic version, pretty out of control. (Laughs.)

But subsequently … I’ve been presented with opportunities to do it with a handful of actors, and I began to work on the material. It’s been whittled down to five characters—I use fewer and fewer actors but never less of the play. My adaptation does upset the chronology. In many productions of Peer Gynt the role is shared, it’s almost traditional: the young Peer, the middle-aged Peer, the old Peer. In my adaptation three actors play Peer but their ages are not that disparate. They have different temperaments, different flavors that they offer the role. And the chronology is turned into a kind of collage. It’s like a life spinning by, in the moments before you die.

Could you describe the three Peers in your version?

One is young, brash, open, a little bit full of himself; one is the kind of slightly older “smoothie,” a man of many voices who’s been around the block; and the third is very vulnerable, very precarious, very unpredictable, with a surprisingly expressive sensibility, very instinctive, and a little nutty. They add up nicely, I think.

And in your version does Peer go to Egypt and Morocco and so forth?

He goes everywhere. I can proudly vouch for that. This is a version that is two hours and uses five actors—as opposed to five hours and 50 actors—but no major set piece is left out.  Because I love the range of it, I love the expansiveness of the storytelling. My turning it into a chamber piece had nothing to do with restricting the range. It’s keeping the vision just as big, but evolving a kind of language of storytelling and theatricality that I thought would be more expressive, ultimately, than old-fashioned spectacle. No major scenes are left out, they are just edited.

Who are Peer’s literary cousins?

He’s a funny blend. He’s sort of a combination of Candide, Don Juan—he’s like a twisted Everyman. He has an innocence about him, because he never ceases to believe that the world might be his oyster, but he becomes corrupted—though never truly. There’s something touching about him because he lives in his dreams but he has a dynamic spirit, an aggressive spirit. He’s not like a Walter Mitty who drifts around and whose dream life sucks the energy out of his real life. Peer’s dream lifeinfuses his real life, until he can’t tell the difference.

Are there “lessons” to take away from this play?

Yes, I think that’s something that’s kept me involved with the piece all these years. Peer thrashes around, he has successes and failures, and he turns himself upside down. And these questions keeping arising, scene after scene: Who are you? What meaning do you have? … How do you fit into the master plan? And ultimately in the final scene he comes back to this woman he’s always loved and says, “Who am I? Tell me, please, because this is the end—if you don’t tell me I go back into the shadows.” And she says: I know where you have always been: In my hope, in my faith, and in my love. And in its simplicity and austerity it’s very moving. It has the potential to be transcendentally moving. That you live in the faith of someone that you have touched. You could disparage it and think of it as sort of Dr. Phil, but it’s not. It’s really a very 19th-century idea that travels the centuries … and will still move contemporary audiences.

So this is the fifth Peer you’ve directed. How has your thinking about the play evolved over the years? What do you take away from it now that you didn’t in 1969?

I think that’s kind of a good question, because I’ve moved, like Peer, through these different stages of life, so it feels more consequential now, the stakes are higher. I have more empathy with the whole realm of the play where the older man looks back and thinks, What’s it all about, what did it amount to? … I think emotionally it’s become increasingly resonant.

Where does this play fit into the grand scheme of theater history?

It’s a visionary piece, because it speaks to the multiple levels of reality and dream life and psychology that the theater has been able to speak to in the modern era, in the last few centuries. I really think it was a benchmark, I think it kind of opened the door. To me it opened the door wider than Ibsen’s more famous plays, later plays which spoke so directly and cleanly and emphatically to certain social issues and certain hypocrisies of bourgeois society.

I find Peer more universal. … It asks the big questions, and it doesn’t make the mistake of trying to tie them up in too neat a bundle. It revels in the complexity that they deserve. And it contains different tones—wild outlandish humor juxtaposed against extremely tender, more domestic scenes. … As a director that’s the kind of thing that I’m wildly sympathetic with: taking people on that kind of roller-coaster of different moods.

Peer Gynt runs through May 22nd at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Copaken Stage. For tickets and information go towww.kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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