Who says Ibsen is all about bourgeois anguish in tastefully arranged sitting parlors? Directed with seemingly boundless energy and invention by Assistant Professor of Theater Yuriy Kordonskiy, “Peer Gynt,” written by the revered playwright before his classic forays into psychological realism such as “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler,” burst with a giddy, infectious life that proved Ibsen to be as fantastically imaginative as he is emotionally perceptive. Kordonskiy’s production lifted the audience up on a wave of theatrical ingenuity as wonderfully entertaining as it was thematically germane.
The bottomless treasure trove of joyously theatrical concepts with which Kordonskiy populates his production became richer for the subtle and sublime way they illuminated Ibsen’s fascinating and (at least to this writer) flawed text. The tale of the titular character, a ne’r-do-well from the countryside that gains the world and almost loses his soul, weaves episodically through a series of vignettes throughout Peer Gynt’s life, following him from carefree youth to acrimonious old age. Along the way, he impregnates and almost marries a beautiful troll princess before fleeing from her and her family; finds the love of his life but loses her when the troll princess arrives bearing his young son; and attains vast wealth as his soul slowly hardens with selfishness and isolation.
Ibsen famously commented that he wrote “Peer Gynt” with no intention of it ever being performed on stage. This disregard for the stage’s constrictions can be seen not only in the script’s fantastic set pieces (including a ship in a fierce storm and the grand court of the troll kingdom), but also in the lengthy, at times static nature of the play, particularly in the second act when Peer reflects back on the failures of his life. The character of the Button-Molder, in particular, seems to work better as a literary image than a theatrical conceit. He is sent at play’s end to melt the aging Peer down to scrap. Peer’s compromised, self-centered life has not been worth entrance to either the glories of heaven or the agonies of hell, and his soul will be reduced to the neutral substance it already is, to be used as a higher power sees fit. These concepts, explained in a series of monologues, are at once intellectually intriguing and theatrically stiff, talked about rather than shown.
The brilliance of Kordonskiy’s production lay in the ability of himself and his cast to embody Ibsen’s images and ideas in visual and aural terms. The supposed difficulty of staging this text seemed to have invigorated those involved rather than inhibited. Such moments of theatrical magic were as impressive for their economy as for their emotional impact. Actors pressing their faces against black material held tight around their features became ghosts when bathed in lighting designer John Carr’s eerie, expressive lighting. The initial meeting between Peer and his true love, Ingrid (played by Lina Makdisi ’07), at a party, took on a breathtaking delicacy when underscored by a single, sustained note, made by the other actors simply running their fingers around the edges of their glass champagne flutes. Act two began with the cast transforming the performance space, before our very eyes, into a massive transport ship, using little more than wooden poles, white sheets, rope, and their own vocal sound effects.
Rather than attempt any sort of realism, Kordonskiy embraced the theatricality of his own enterprise. Kordonskiy organized the space so the audience sat on the CFA Theater stage, on risers that faced opposite one another and the performance space in the middle. Scenic designer Marcela Oteiza’s set resembled nothing if not a giant sandbox, with wooden platforms on either end, ropes hanging from the ceiling, and full of a fine, rocky substance. This image of a sandbox conjured up the youthful playfulness Peer so often indulges in, but also the entrapment felt when he begins to outgrow playtime but remains trapped in fantasy and arrested development. In the second act, it began to resemble a kind of beach, a middle space between the rocky sea of Peer’s selfish life and the firm, solid earth of the selfless life he may find before death.
Perhaps Kordonskiy’s most successful artistic decision was the level of trust he put in his terrific ensemble of student actors, who performed multiple roles, read stage directions, provided set changes and sound effects, and remained on stage for the entire duration of the almost-three-hour production. Each actor provided memorable shading and nuance to each of their multiple characterizations. This was especially true of the five male actors, all of whom performed as Peer at different points in his life. Each performer charted Peer’s journey from impetuous youth, to twentysomething hope and arrogance, to middle-aged regret, to the bitter despair and flickering hope of old age.
The multiple performers provided an intriguing visual representation of Peer’s constantly shifting personality and the sense of self he attempts to piece together throughout the course of the play. Indeed, by having all actors on stage in constantly shifting roles, Kordonskiy provided the audience with a thrillingly theatrical take on how identity is constructed over the course of a lifetime. Everywhere Peer turns, he constantly sees versions of himself and those he has loved, hated, and cast aside, building and taking apart the ever-shifting landscape of his life.
Here, the production’s blatant theatricality found its thematic counterpoint in Ibsen’s texts, exploring and comparing the ways in which our lives become a kind of endless production, at once completely within our control and completely ruled by the ghosts of our past and memories of who we used to be. That a production full of such heady, complex ideas should also be an evening full of pure theatrical pleasure is a tribute to the level of artistry Kordonskiy and his cast and crew so consistently achieve throughout the performance.