Guthrie Theater: Seen Feb.15th
Editor’s note: Access Press is pleased to welcome author and playwright Raymond Luczak as our new theater reviewer. Mr. Luczak www.raymondluczak.com will be reviewing an ASL-interpreted play each month under the heading “From the front row.” Reviews will be posted first to access press.org, and printed the following month. Coming next: Peer Gynt (reviewed Feb 17th)
Of the many plays in Henrik Ibsen’s canon, Peer Gynt is an odd creature. Ibsen had originally written it as a novel in 1867, exploring various Norwegian fairy tales as a way to poke fun at the then-novel idea of returning to nature and simplicity. He never thought of it as a performable work, but when the book became a huge success, he eventually adapted it for the stage in 1876. The problem was that Ibsen didn’t trim a whole lot from the book in his adaptation. Ever since then many directors and producers have wrestled with the play’s very long running time of over five hours, and there have been numerous translations and adaptations over the years.
Robert Bly, the unofficial poet laureate of Minnesota, has created a three-hour translation and adaptation, a lot of which is in rhymed verse, that makes the title character quite joyful and yet far more selfish on his journey to find his “true self.” The play begins with a quick jolt of exposition: We are at Peer Gynt’s surprise 50th birthday party, and we are asked to practice our “surprise!” for the moment when Peer arrives. The party soon segues into a flashback that explores how Peer began his journey away from his homeland, escaping because he had run off with someone else’s bride, a crime punishable by death. He constantly reinvents himself to suit the occasion, and along the way he appears to have developed no sense of responsibility whatsoever. In that sense, he is a true antihero who, on paper, sounds rather repulsive and unworthy of our time in the theater. But with his insouciant bearing and light feet, Mark Rylance manages to infuse Peer Gynt with a likeable, satyr-like glee. The fluidity of his performance, and Tim Carroll’s nimble direction, manage to leaven a story that at times still feels a bit lugubrious.
There are some standout moments: When Peer and Solveig, played by the lovely Miriam Silverman, dance together for the first time, everyone around them slowly freezes as these two lock arms and eyes; the lighting design by Stan Pressner is most keenly felt here, framed by the barn evoked by Laura Hopkins’s set and costume design. In a play that’s essentially a one-man show with many supporting characters, Solveig as a major character has very few lines; but she proves herself to be an active listener. She isn’t just listening; she is truly listening with her subtle facial reactions. And she acquits herself beautifully when she sings with her tender voice. The other standout performance is Isabell Monk O’Connor, who plays Peer’s mother. After a number of years, Peer returns home and reveals just how much of a Peter Pan he is in the most poignant scene in the entire play, in which his mother dies.
So what’s so “modernist” about Peer Gynt, and why should we care? While I’m not intimately familiar with the works of all the major late-nineteenth-century playwrights, as a character, Peer Gynt must be the first modernist slacker. He doesn’t really have evil aspirations, he just wants everything handed to him on a silver platter without having to earn it. If Peer were online right now, he’d be considered a get-rich-quick “game player.” While of course Ibsen could have had no knowledge of modern technology, if nothing else, he was remarkably prescient about the human condition.
If there is anything in this play that is relevant to the disability community, the way Peer’s unconventional behavior affects his social standing parallels our feelings as outsiders. We simply do not accommodate what the larger able-bodied society expects of us. But the story of finding one’s true self-whatever that may turn out to be-is a never-ending tale for many of us in the disability community. It is so difficult to feel true to oneself while enduring the many societal pressures to conform. We know deep down that it is usually next to impossible to be accepted in the same way that able-bodied people accept each other. Still, the huge difference between Peer Gynt and ourselves is that he had a choice to change his behavior every step of the way. He just didn’t care.
The Guthrie Theater has long prided itself on providing top-notch ASL interpretation, and this production was no exception. The company provided a lovely ASL-interpreted show program that included photographs of the performers, descriptions of their name signs, and which of the two interpreters would be signing for which character, as well as brief bios about the interpreters. A concise two-paragraph summary is also included to help Deaf audience members follow this sprawling story of one man’s journey and the multitude of characters he meets along the way, which can be particularly confusing if there are only two interpreters handling the entire cast.
Cathy Mosher ably interpreted all the characters except Peer Gynt, which Carrie Wilbert handled with a lot of gusto, not always matching the tempo of Mark Rylance’s work onstage. It is my belief that ASL interpreters shouldn’t “overact” or monopolize attention away from the actors, but instead they should provide just enough information to enable Deaf audience members to absorb both the information from the interpreter and the action onstage, rather than pay full attention only to the interpreters. That said, both Mosher and Wilbert’s ASL translations were very fine. A peculiar but telling detail about the difficulty of theatrical interpreting came to my attention: Because the floor in front of the stage had no carpeting, the interpreters stood on a pair of soft mats to help ease the strain of standing in one place.
In spite of Bly’s wonderful writing, Peer Gynt would have benefited from even more streamlining in a way that would still honor Ibsen’s original vision, in the same way that many productions of Shakespeare’s plays use condensed versions of his work for greater clarity onstage. Still, Mark Rylance is the main reason to see this production; he is Peer Gynt himself.
Gutherie Theater is located at: 818 South Second Street, Minneapolis