This Friday, Arts Editor Riva Weinstein headed to the Minor Latham Playhouse for the Barnard Theater Department’s performance of Peer Gynt. The verdict: WHOA.
Loki. Coyote. Anansi. Hermes. Jack. Trickster characters are almost a universal human archetype, looming large out of stories from across the world, thrilling audiences with their cleverness, wit, and – nearly always – their masculinity. Peer Gynt is one such folkloric hero, a troll-killing hunter from a Norwegian folk tale. But when Peer Gynt leapt onstage at the Barnard Theater Department’s Saturday night performance, the Trickster splintered and reshaped itself in a totally new image.
In the opening scene, the young Peer Gynt (Angel Dudley, GS ‘19) excitedly recounts the story of a stag-hunting expedition, while her mother Aase (Lydia Georgantzi, GS ’22) berates her for being a useless daughter. Peer hears that the rich farmer’s daughter Ingrid (Bailey Coleman, BC ‘19), who is about to be married, once had feelings for her. She immediately rushes off to steal the bride. Peer is banished for her crime, and spends the next several decades wandering among troll kingdoms, Moroccan beaches, Bedouin tribes, mental institutions, and the high seas.
Henrik Ibsen’s play is a highly psychological, nearly Modernist rendering of a folktale universe. Peer ceaselessly struggles with, and rejects civilized society as “Lies, lies, a bunch of goddamned poetry.” She seeks a completely unrestrained, natural self. But as the play progresses, she is tormented by her own morality in the guise of various characters: the “Great Between,” the “Button-maker,” and her husband Solveig (Jordan Mahr, CC ‘20) who waits for her at home. In the end, Peer is forced to face the fact that in all her time exploiting the world in the interest of individualism, she has almost never truly been “herself.”
The story relies upon Peer Gynt being a larger-than-life figure, a character so big that only by becoming “Empress of the World” can she force it to contain her. Angel Dudley not only accomplishes this task; she knocks it out of the park. She surges with irrepressible, constantly shifting, intoxicating energy. The excellent movement work is brought to a stunning new level in Dudley’s scenes. Her mocking rage when Solveig refuses to dance with her, and her heartbreaking pathos when she begs him not to forget her, draws the emotional force of the entire play into her orbit.
Other notable performances were by Lydia Georgantzi, and by Bailey Coleman, who switched between the three roles of Ingrid, the nurse, and the Button-maker with effortless certainty. The ensemble carried much of the show with their sophisticated movement work – a troll dance set to EDM, and the chilling mental institution scene come first to mind. Jordan Mahr sparked up the second half by displaying a lovely singing voice.
Despite its over-reliance on the smoke machine, Christina Watanabe’s lighting design beautifully set the parameters for the modern folk tale aesthetic of Peer Gynt. For most of the play, the stage is draped with constantly shifting landscapes of light, so highly saturated that it is difficult to see what the “true” colors of things are. Smoke makes the colors drift and melt like a Romantic painting. We are in a subjective world, Peer’s world. But when the manifold voice of the “Great Between” and the “Button-maker” appear, bright white light fills the stage. Peer is forced to confront the truth – that she is Empress of nothing but her own mind.
The sound design, by the group Broken Chord, is the single most important element transforming Peer Gynt from a pre-Modernist struggle against society to a Postmodernist struggle against technologically-modified reality. Electronic noise, pulsating alarms, and eerie music weave effortlessly in and out of scenes. The beginning of the “wedding” scene, featuring electric violin and eerie singing, and the brief “funeral” scene, stand out as the most visually and aurally compelling scenes in the play. The voice of the Great Between seems more digital than divine. The electronic motifs add a whole new meaning to the Button-maker’s threat that Peer will not be tortured in Hell, but “melted down” and combined with other souls. It speaks of the deep anxiety of losing one’s individuality in the age of mass information and mass connection.
It should not be understated that the Barnard Theater Department’s casting decisions were powerful. The Trickster, in all its permutations, is almost universally a male archetype. Casting a woman of color in the heavily masculinized, white-coded role of Peer Gynt throws certain dynamics in the 19th-century play into sharp relief. Male Trickster characters are forgiven for everything from manipulating and abandoning their loved ones, to colonialism and slave-trading. Despite the pronoun changes, at no point during the play does the audience forget that Peer Gynt is a European male character. Instead, we are forced to reflect on what these actions mean when they are removed from their original context.
As usual, the Barnard Theater Department has outdone itself. Peer Gynt was an all-around fantastic production featuring incredibly sophisticated direction, design, and acting. My only major gripe was that for a non-musical play, it was too long. If you didn’t make it to this performance, be sure to keep an eye out for the BTD’s production of Colony Collapse this December.
Photo via Stephen Yang