Peer Gynt tells the life story of an irresponsible young man who grows into an old man adventuring through the world. He returns home and makes an accounting of his life when faced with the prospect of death.
We open on a scene with Peer’s mother, where he beguiles her with outrageous lies about his hunting trip, plagiarized from someone else’s experience.
He proceeds to attend a wedding he’s not invited to, meet a young pure lady and fall in love with her, kidnap, ravish and abandon the bride, get exiled from his village, have sex with three young ladies he finds in the forest, meet and knock up a troll princess, and leave the pure lady (Solveig) in a hut in the wood waiting for him as he runs away.
Peer’s father is no longer on the scene. His long-suffering, scolding mother remains faithful to her son despite his bad behaviour. She raised him up on fairy tales. Peer absorbed their flights of fancy, as well as a self-aggrandizing sense of himself as a prince.
He somehow missed the strong ethical side to fairy tales.
Modifying the Wood Street School’s gym into a stage offers challenges and opportunities.
The stage area for the Moving Parts Theatre production of Peer Gynttransports you firmly into another world. The floor is covered with black masonite, taped and painted with grey swirls, which can suggest a wide variety of surfaces, and catch the light beautifully between scenes.
Entrances can come from the four corners, set with one or two risers. Seats line four sides. Curtains veil the concrete walls.
I felt inside a story, inside a psychology, even. The minimalist set tells me that we’re entering an imaginary world, where the alleged locations are not as important as their interior impact.
Could it all be some sort of hallucination?
Seventy original custom-fitted masks were created for the play. Many of them are beautiful or beautifully grotesque. The troll princess is particularly effective with her glowing bug eyes and slightly lumpy but not unattractive face.
Fitting both the villagers and the trolls with masks seems to me to make a statement about their similarity. After all, the villagers could be played in bare face – their masks are mostly not extremely transformative.
Three different masks help Winluck Wong play Peer’s three different ages. He also moves well to communicate his age and emotions.
We see actors without masks when they’re playing set pieces, like the ship, and when they’re monkeys.
I accepted the notion that maybe the monkey was the unmasked person. But the ship’s captain also went without a mask, though his crew were all masked. I’m thinking that giving him one of the villager’s masks would make more sense.
An audience needs consistency in these conventions to decode the play’s imaginary world.
Masks are merciless about blocking. They read best face-on, so-so in profile (depending on the nose) and, of course, not at all from the rear. This is tough in the round.
In fact, I found myself staring at wide black elastic a lot, noticing that the effect when the elastic and forehead were covered with hair were much more effective. This impact could be reduced even on shorter-haired actors by pulling their hair out and over the elastic; that would ease my willing suspension of disbelief.
This is a linguistically dense play, not quite Shakespeare, but still period language. Some of the images shine. The idea that souls that are miscast must be melted down and recast like a silver button is clear and poignant. I can feel the fear of loss of one’s individuality in this process.
When masks are full-faced, it is hard to hear these lines. Fortunately, very few of them went past the upper lip. I often wished for more enunciation, especially when the actors were using accents.
From time to time, scenes lost energy because the actors still weren’t solid on their lines. Hopefully this will tighten up as the run goes on.
Mike Ivens commanded the stage as the Troll King and as the Devil. Sophia Marnik played an enigmatic and creepy corpse collector on the ship. Katy Organ, who played Solveig, performed her song of waiting for Peer hauntingly.
As a woman, I have always found the basic story of the Odyssey deeply irritating, with the man going out and having adventures, often sexual, with the woman waiting patiently at home. I wasn’t sure what would happen in the end to Peer Gynt. That kept me interested. I won’t spoil that for you.
The show is fully three hours long. The intermission lasts only 10 minutes. Do bring $1.25 for the vending machine; it’s a long journey and refreshment is worthwhile, if you go in for that sort of thing.
The recycling can is beside the machine; you might need to dig it out from under some cardboard, but that’s where your can should go.
Peer Gynt plays till February 18 at the Wood Street School, starting at 8 p.m. sharp.