Peeling Peer's Onion

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Right before the lights go down at the La Jolla Playhouse, a calm voice wafts over the audience. "You are about to see the rarely performed 1867 masterpiece Peer Gynt, the disembodied voice says, "but instead of the epic 50-character, five-act, five-hour Ibsen original -- you are going to see David Schweizer's five-actor-boiled-down-two-hour adaptation." The announcement is like a carnival barker standing outside of a freak show announcing the astounding Norwegian oddities that lie within.

poster.jpgA second later, as the theater goes black, a small chest center stage is suddenly enchanted with what looks like a swarm of magical fireflies. The cast of actors huddle behind it and suddenly discover a giant book that illuminates their faces. With a childlike glee they take turns reading. The words are the opening lines of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Like a childhood fairytale that simply demands to be acted out -- the words bring the actors to life and we're off.

For folks not familiar with Peer Gynt, it's a remarkable morality play and meditation on identity and the true nature of self. At its heart, it's a painful love story. We follow the cocksure Peer as he falls in love with the idyllically pure Solveng and then abandons her while he goes out to have the adventures of his life. Based on Norwegian folk tales and Ibsen's own life, the play bounces between reality and fantasy blurring time and place like a fever dream.

It's helpful to know at least the broad outlines of Peer Gynt going in. While David Schweizer's boiled-down script stays true to the original, even the original is pretty bizarre. A little preparation will keep you from blinking an eye in the stranger moments, like when Ibsen takes you into the heart of a mountain with a troll king.

Schweizer's adaptation is a stylized, irreverent romp that updates the language and at its best brings a wonderfully raw theatrical energy to the story. Act One is a joy as the actors take on character after character transforming before our eyes -- a quick trip behind a wardrobe is all it takes an actress to morph from the dainty Solveng to the hideous troll princess. The theatrical language keeps evolving organically with each scene from story theater, to puppets, to actors narrating the story through onstage mics. It's dizzying but wonderful.

Sadly, what was magical in act one begins to feel forced in Act Two. The procession of theatrical conventions starts to feel gimmicky. The actor's clever character voices and choices begin to feel a bit hollow. Director David Schweizer, like Peer, can't seem to find his way back home.

The wonderful exception, and really the emotional heart of the show, is actress Birgit Huppuch who plays Peer's trinity of women -- his heartbreaking mother, the goofy troll princess, and the wrenchingly pure Solveng. As an actress, she's found a way to embrace Schweizer's style and quick character work without losing an immediate, soulful presence. Her performance alone is worth the trip down to La Jolla.

And hey, with Carmageddon coming, why not travel south for a little theater?

Peer Gynt plays at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 24.

For info on the show text the word "curtain" to 69866.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Banner image: (L-R) Danny Gavigan, Kate Cullen Roberts, Luis Moreno, Evan Zes and Birgit Huppuch in La Jolla Playhouse's production of Peer Gynt. Photo by Don Ipock