Guthrie Theater Peer Gynt and
Also see Elizabeth's review of Blue Door
Adapted by famed Minnesota author and poet Robert Bly and starring masterful British actor Mark Rylance, Peer Gynt follows its titular character from rural Norway to the far reaches of the earth before returning home. Gynt is a dreamer, someone far more interested in spinning tall stories than actually doing any work. Through the play, he never settles on a life, moving from his mountain home (and a women he professes to love) to make his fortune in the world. He does this by doing a series of despicable acts, such as engaging in the slave trade, and eventually losing himself to his previous world before making one final, vain attempt to go home.
Bly's adaptation delves deep into the heart of Ibsen's original, finding both the pain and the humor that lies within Gynt and the play. The production approaches the play's fantastic sequences - life in the troll kingdom and the picaresque travels in the Middle East - with a nice, light touch, while still taking time for the more heartbreaking sequences.
So far, so good, but those moments of intense drama are undermined by a lack of focus in other sequences. Part of the trouble is that the play includes a framing device, with a modern-day "Peter Gynt" who, it seems, has lived the same type of empty life that Peer did in the 19th century. While it does bring home the idea that a character like Peer is eternal, it also adds some narrative baggage the play doesn't need. It may have worked had it been delved into more, but as it is, you may spend your time wishing they would get on with the play's action.
Still, Rylance - who played at the Guthrie with Shakespeare's Globe Theater touring productions in past years - gives a commanding and nuanced performance that, in 11 months time, will probably rank among the best in 2008. Though his outward appearance never changes, you can see how the years and the events of his life continue to weigh on his soul.
Director Tim Carroll does solid work, keeping the action clear (aided immensely by the stage design of Laura Hopkins, who crafts all of the play's multitude of settings out of a barn) and giving the performers a chance to really live out the play's best moments (such as Gynt comforting his mother - strongly played by Isabell Monk O'Connor - on her deathbed at the end of the first act). I do wish they would have spent more time on the script's poetry, as the actors sometimes get lost within the rhyme and meter of the lines, stripping them of their impact.
Peer Gynt probably won't be the most satisfying production this year in the Twin Cities, but it contains more than enough food for thought, not to mention a stunning central performance, to make it a trip worth taking.
Peer Gynt runs through March 2 at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.
Photo: © Michal Daniel, 2007
Set in Copenhagen, the play follows a visiting American professor of poetry, Sarah, who is in the city as part of an academic exchange. Her plan is to lecture a bit, do some fresh research and write another book. A chance meeting at the local pizza parlor, where she falls for Kurdish refugee Soran, derails those plans. The two fall for each other, but not before entangling a number of others in this "farce without doors," including retiree Ule, agoraphobes Inga and Olga, fellow academic Heino and Rebar, the owner of the pizza parlor who does not trust the American.
The main trouble is that, out of all of these characters, the one that is fleshed out the least is Sarah. We know she's a professor, but there never seems to be any love for her subject matter. Someone who has gone through the heartache of writing books should have a bit more passion about it. She also pales in comparison to Soran, a refugee who has lost his Kurdish home and family; a man who literally walked from Iraq to Copenhagen.
The always reliable Stacia Rice infuses Sarah with more life than the script provides, and her intimate scenes with Soran (played with good humor and a deep sorrow by Ron Menzel) are breathtaking. The balance of the cast does good work as well, and director John Miller-Stephany crafts the evening with a light tone that accents the show's big heart and humor.
The Poetry of Pizza runs through February 10 at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis. For information and tickets, call 612-338-6131 or visit www.mixedblood.com.
Photo: Ann Marsden