Long before Henrik Ibsen revolutionized dramatic form with living-room dramas like A Doll’s House, he wrote vast, rambling epics, of which the deliberately strange Peer Gynt is perhaps the most famous — and hardest to stage. It spans a lifetime, traverses continents, and includes encounters with several incarnations of Death. Oh, and its protagonist is so brazenly selfish he’s very hard to like.
All of which means Peer Gynt demands a strong directorial approach and an incisive eye for adaptation, neither of which fully materializes in Ma-Yi Theater’s Peer Gynt and the Norwegian Hapa Band, written by Michi Barall and directed by Jack Tamburri. Barall trims Ibsen’s sprawling opus, updates its language, and punctuates it with songs, while Tamburri sets it on a spare stage to the accompaniment of a rock band (drums, keyboard, electric guitar). The result is often engaging and occasionally poignant but lacks a coherent take on Ibsen’s notoriously incoherent tale.
From childhood, Peer (Matt Park) has been an inveterate liar, prankster, and dreamer, to the exasperation of his long-suffering mother (Mia Katigbak). He retells others’ stories, casting himself as the hero. He crashes a neighbor’s wedding to steal the bride, only to abandon her in pursuit of his dream girl, the innocent Solvay (Rocky Vega), from whom he demands undying loyalty even as he sets off to travel the world alone. In the mountains, he stumbles into a troll kingdom, whose green-haired, pig-snouted princess (Angel Desai) attempts to ensnare him in marriage. Venturing even farther afield, Peer strikes it rich in the international shipping business, contemplates the Sphinx, and lands in an insane asylum, before finally returning as an old man to Norway, where the ever-faithful, now-blind Solvay awaits.
At stake throughout is the question of who Peer is: Where, in his catalog of adventures, self-styled myths, and misdeeds, does the truth about him lie? In a famous speech, he compares the self to an onion — endless layers, nothing at the core. But the challenge of staging Peer Gynt is to embrace the play’s wildness while finding an emotional path through Ibsen’s dramatic thicket. Tamburri’s production revolves around the band: The actors sing and play raucous, poppy tunes, moving between dialogue and song. But fewer songs might have allowed Barall, Tamburri, and Park — who also composed music — to include only the best ones (and the best ones are delightful). More importantly, a stronger relationship between story and song could give the production the emotional center it somewhat lacks.
As Park’s Peer belts out a song of unchecked ambition and greed (“I’m gonna rule the world…and not pay property tax”), it’s clear Ma-Yi hasn’t missed the current resonance of Ibsen’s amoral, truth-twisting antihero. Such connections could make this fascinating play feel more contemporary than ever. But they need to be paired with a point of view — a reason to follow Peer on his tumultuous quest for money, fame, and self. Otherwise, he’s simply an unlikable, outrageous liar, and we don’t need another one of those right now.
Peer Gynt and the Norwegian Hapa Band
By Michi Barall
Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./NY
502 West 53rd Street
Through February 11