Ibsen's Peer Gynt

Translated and adapted by Errol Durbach

Director John Wright Costumes Barbara Clayden Stage Manager Melissa C. Powell Lighting John Webber Set and Props Marti Wright

Dates 5 - 16 September 2006 Venue Vancouver East Cultural Centre Reviewer J H Stape

For Vancouver theatre audiences, ever in search of that good "har-har," this sparkling mounting of Peer Gynt has them aplenty, but, caveat emptor, only if you appreciate jokes about Derrida and postmodernism, Kierkegaard and Kant, for this lucid, crisply directed production is, as it were, a cabaret of the imagination or a tap dance of the archetypes custom made for intellectuals on the razzle.

Errol Durbach's stunning adaptation/translation is at once an updating (there are references to the politicos in Ottawa) and a searching seminar on the play's innermost core. Into Vancouver's heart of lightness, Blackbird Theatre, a company of serious purpose, offers fine acting and brilliant direction that drags Ibsen giggling into the twentieth-first century.

The ensemble acting is impeccable, with sharp-edged performances even in the minor roles. Young Peer has an athletic presence in Craig Erickson, who cavorts, jumps, and lunges like a caged young tiger, struggling to define himself and to understand the complexities of his soul and the world. The Old Peer of Donald Adams is a perfect counterpart, the mature man, alternately rich and poor, venal and generous, bewildered by both the ruins and successes of his life. Both actors dominate these big roles, with Adams offered and grabbing the greater subtlety and passion lying in his.

The main secondary roles are taken with evident authority. Simon Webb's Buttonmoulder (an updated Grim Reaper), who frames the play, turns in a spellbinding performance, as does Peer's mother Ase (Rosy Frier-Dryden), both actors relying on supple voices of singular range to convey intensity and depth.

The other actors take on a plethora of roles -- trolls, houris, seamen, villagers -- in a hurly-burly not found outside the brothel scene of Joyce's Ulysses. Peer's excursion into the Troll Kingdom is rendered rollickingly, a hormonal rush that becomes a nightmare. And indeed seeing this production is rather like watching a dream whilst awake as characters fade and form, the actors undergoing one effortless transformation after another.

Leonard Stanga is particularly impressive as the Troll King, and Heidi Specht a deliciously over-the-top pig girl, whilst Spencer Atkinson manages to distinguish himself in his seven roles that include a dancing houri, an autistic boy, and a drowning sailor. Adam Henderson's tap-dancing Mephistopheles is simply a "must see" creation, earning a spontaneous ooh of applause from the audience.

Peer's ideal woman -- the ewige Weib (yes, there are sprinklings of German and even Norwegian here) -- is appropriately bland blondeness, well conveyed by Nicole Braber, whose bright voice is used to singular effect in Greig songs that convey a dreamy, northern atmosphere.

Another star of this production is the simple set, with its central circle, the self whose limits Young and Old Peer attempt to explore and at times escape. Effectively lit, this becomes the world in miniature as Peer journeys astonishingly within a multiplex self hurtling towards self-knowledge and self-deception with equal abandon. "Peer is us" all right, and his at times bewilderingly varied adventures comment on our own. Durbach's adaptation is a triumph, and he is deftly aided in it by John Wright's conception, ably brought to life by a fine cast. Rush to see it: this run is all too short, and this is likely to be the Peer Gynt of your theatre-going lifetime.

Pity about the venue. It was like being in a creaky oven for two and a half hours, with restroom arrangements and public spaces even more appallingly inadequate than those of The Orpheum. "The Cultch" is on a campaign for its renovation, but perhaps a more thorough job is needed -- a huge demolition crane ought to put this outdated makeshift monstrosity out of its misery.

© 2006 J H Stape