The New York Critic: Reviews

Telescopic Focus

Peer Gynt
by Henrik Ibsen

Brooklyn Academy of Music

That Robert Wilson is one of our generation's great designers is beyond question; that he is a great director remains undecided. His most recent work is his design and direction of Peer Gynt at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, from The National Theatre of Bergen and The Norwegian Theatre at Oslo. The four-hour play is presented in Norwegian with English surtitles. Ibsen's sing-song verse has been translated into free verse, with the occasional rhymed couplet. For the first three acts, while the play takes the form of a folk drama, it's absorbing. But after the entr'acte, the production gets tedious, because it looses dramatic tension

Ibsen published Peer Gynt in 1867 not as a stage script, but as a "dramatic poem" (he had already written a fair amount of non-dramatic verse). Years later, he adapted the lengthy poem for the stage. The result combines five-act verse drama with expressionism. What's more, with its long time frame and lack of compression, it anticipates epic theater. It's in that timeless genre of literature that uses travel as a metaphor for a spiritual quest, and as such, its structure is episodic. It's made more so by the character of its "hero": Peer has no direction, so the play has no through line. The playwright who was to become a master of structure had no concern for it in this play.

Wilson's direction is a sort of a super-presentationalism. His stage is often bare, and it sometimes has a set piece or two - or a backdrop - indicating the scene. He uses stark, dramatic lighting, and his actors move slowly, with the stilted deliberacy of puppets. They're usually facing us. They have little interest in one another; they exist for our sake. It seems that we've projected them on to the stage. This must have been what Gordon Craig (also a designer) had in mind when he pictured actors as uber-marionettes.

Wilson's technique employs a telescopic focus on selected details, and jettisons most else. When a character walks, the footstep booms, or we hear the amplified squish of the footfall in a marsh. Swallowing a bite of bread is a sound that fills the theater. There's a huge chandelier that isn't associated with any ceiling or walls; it just hangs from the flies taking up half the stage

The scenes offer a series of expressionist effects. Occasionally, some characters bark. The production's most evocative moment is the climax: at the death of his mother, Peer, usually so eloquent, babbles garbled gibberish.

There's an exhilarating, liberating denial that the actor is the character. Three actors play Peer, who ages considerably during the play. "Breeches torn… If only I had something new to wear," the young Peer says - but the actor is wearing an immaculate white linen suit. When the troll king's daughter shows up demanding recognition for Peer's son, we're told that she has a snout - but the actress herself isn't wearing one.

From the opening silhouettes against the bright blue light of the upstage wall, many of the detached, iconic stage images are stunning. But Wilson's design can overpower the other elements of theater, the way music overpowers the other elements of opera. It depends on an impregnable script to achieve a balance. It found it in his 2002 production of Woyzeck, a short and intense play packed with emotion. Given the problems if Peer Gynt, this production's design is less well balanced, but no less brilliant.

- Steve Capra
April 2006