We live in a time of trolls. We live in a time in which we construct ourselves in terms of the media that we consume. We live in a time in which increasing numbers of our fellow citizens seem unable or unwilling to distinguish fact from fiction. “Facts” become a matter of personal preference and are often handed out by the opinion-leaders of one’s particular identity group. We even have an exaggerator (if not an outright liar) occupying the highest office in the land. In this surreal landscape, it becomes more and more difficult to locate one’s authentic self. This alienation from the self is a facet of Western modernity, a process already well advanced when the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen was hard at work with his exploration of the human psyche when he wrote his iconic plays in the late 1800s.
The difficulty of personal authenticity is one of the main themes of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” (pronounced “pier gint”), which is currently being performed by Tacoma’s New Muses Theatre Company. For this play, Ibsen combined a semi-mythical character, the titular Peer Gynt (a kind of supercharged fool) with material from Nordic fairy tales. Ibsen added some autobiographical elements and came up with a fantastical epic that follows Peer Gynt on his circuitous travels from the farms, forests and mountains of Norway, through troll-infested caves and then on to exotic lands. The play, here comprising 38 separate scenes, is so large that New Muses’ artistic director Niclas Olson (who adapted the play for this production) broke the play into two parts. Parts I and II are to be seen of separate occasions. The two parts are intermingled in the show’s schedule. Olson asserts that either part can be enjoyed as its own separate entity.
Peer Gynt is s spinner of wild yarns about himself: a braggart, a liar and an outlaw who abducts brides from their weddings, brawls, seduces and is, in turn, seduced. He involves himself in the slave trade and pedals in idolatry and even tries to put himself across as a prophet. He traffics with trolls and demons and travels without any kind of compass, moral or otherwise, as he imagines that he will one day rule the world. Despite all of this, Peer is loved by many women: his mother, farm girls, dairymaids, troll princesses and especially by the beautiful and chaste Solveig, who is so utterly selfless that she refuses to denounce Peer even after a lifetime spent waiting for him to return from his feckless wanderings.
The New Muses production of the epic utilizes only six actors to portray a bewildering array of characters: cave trolls, Norwegian villagers, sailors, colonial adventurers, Arabian dancing girls, devils and inmates of an insane asylum. Olson stars as Peer Gynt, fleshing the character out in all its mercurial complexity.
The role of Solveig is taken up by Katelyn Hoffman, who played Nora in last season’s production of “A Doll’s House,” another Ibsen masterpiece. Hoffman is sweetly demure as Solveig who forsakes her family in order to dwell in the forest with Peer, only to have him run off to sea and make her wait for decades on end. The play shows her as a kind of Snow White, alone in the woods, singing to herself.
Emily Lott Robinson does a great job as Aase, Peer’s widowed mother who is impoverished by her son’s inability to work the family farm or to take the opportunity to marry into money. Despite a state of destitution, Aase is continually overcome with delight at hearing Peer deliver his tall tales. Melanie Schaffer is sultry in her roles as “the woman in green,” daughter of the Mountain King, and as the Arabian dancing girl Anitra in part II of the saga. Schaffer also delivers a crisp and concise portrayal of the devil with whom Peer tries to bargain for a place in hell as a means to cling to his own identity, which he prefers to the alternative of self-obliteration.
Austin Matteson tackles his multitude of roles with precision and is especially engaging as “the button molder,” the spectral figure with a ladle that he intends to use to melt Peer’s soul down so that it can be blended with other souls that are deemed not authentic enough to warrant either heavenly bliss or condemnation to hell.
Eric Cuestas-Thompson plays the savvy Dovre King, the chief of the trolls. Cuestas-Thompson also stars as the head of a gang of wild apes that attack Peer. He voices the mysterious “boyg” against whom Peer struggles at key points in his travels.
Within the intimate space of the Dukesbay Theater (on the second floor of the Merlino Building that is also home to the Grand Cinema), shows put on by New Muses always make one feel like an initiate who is privileged to witness secret rites. The whole fantasy is done with very minimal sets. Projections on a fringe of a screen up above give the audience visual clues on what setting it is to imagine for each scene.
When “Peer Gynt” was first performed in Oslo, Norway in 1876, the play included music penned by the famous Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. Some of the material from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite” is sure to be known to contemporary audiences. “Morning Mood” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” are two examples. The New Muses version makes liberal use of the Grieg score for their production.
There is ample opportunity to enjoy both parts of this iconic play through May 21. New Muses’ shows are very affordable at $15 general admission or $20 for a pass to both parts. Ibsen is one of the greats of the stage. His productions are not to be missed. Performances by New Muses Theatre Company are always a treat, classics like “Peer Gynt” especially so. For more information and show schedules visit www.newmuses.com.