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THEATER REVIEW: Superb acting and production values boost “Peer Gynt”

Several decades ago, pop psych practitioners were pushing the notion of going off “to find oneself.” If they’d taken a gander at Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” maybe they’d have thought better of that suggestion.

This pilgrim isn’t really off in search of himself or anything else (with the possible exception of pleasure), though there’s a lot of talk about “peeling the onion,” presumably referring to the psyche.

No, this Peer Gynt is a self-absorbed, lazy braggart with a penchant for the tall tale and the fantastic story. And in Ibsen’s 1867 “Peer Gynt” (based on the Norwegian folk tale), he leaves the village and poor old mom for adventures that include running off with another man’s wife, meeting a three-headed troll and traveling to Morocco and Egypt, where he works as a slave trader, pornography importer and missionary, among other things.

David Schweizer directs “Peer Gynt,” a co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre. It plays through July 24 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.

Schweizer has a decades-long history with the Ibsen play – this will be the fourth version he’s staged. He’s cut the original five-hour play to 140 minutes, cast five actors in the 50 roles (three of them as Gynt at various times), tossed in creative staging like a mountain range on rollers which can be wheeled into place.

The result is – well, different, difficult to classify and frankly puzzling. It’s all over the place, the characters are difficult to engage with or – in some cases – even grasp, there are sections in questionable (okay, bad) taste and if you’re like me, you’ll leave the theater wondering what Schweizer finds so compelling about this story.

It is said that Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt’s procrastination and lack of responsibility as a satire of the Norwegian people, who refused to take action against German aggression in the Prusso-Danish war.

The political message is lost on modern Americans; we’re left watching a lazy guy on a road trip. Schweizer was left with the technical problems of how to make a pig fly and a ship sink, not to mention that three-headed troll – problems that have been nicely solved.

Schweizer has a sterling cast for this effort: Danny Gavigan, Luis Moreno and Evan Zes alternate as Gynt and play other characters in the meantime; Birgit Huppach plays Peer’s mother Ase and she-who-waits Solveig (among others), and Kate Cullen Roberts plays Ingrid (the wife he steals), Anitra (daughter of a Bedouin chief) and others.

It’s difficult to assess this play. The actors are superb, David Zinn’s set creative, Darrell Maloney’s lighting and projection design a definite plus, as are Christina Wright’s costumes, and Ryan Rumery’s music nice (though sung mostly in a key unknown to man by Huppach).

But it’s ... well, strange. “Peer Gynt” isn’t seen often in English. If you’ve always wanted to see it, here’s your chance.

The details

“Peer Gynt” plays through July 24 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre on the UCSD campus.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets call (858) 550-1010 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.