Like Goethe’s Faust, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was never meant to be a theatrical exercise, but rather a poetic fantasy to be read and analyzed. Of course, Ibsen wasn’t always the full master of his masterworks: In 1876, he created a version of Gynt for the stage. Still, it remains one of the thorniest and bedeviling of the Norwegian’s plays, an amalgam of fairy-tale derivations and well-placed social commentary, Ibsen’s favorite type of dramaturgical weaponry. Satire, hurled across the footlights by a title character powered by narcissism and self-involvement, is also a 21st century construct, so it comes as no surprise, perhaps, that Laura Lynn MacDonald’s adaptation of Peer Gynt is now playing the boards here in New York City.
Except this Peer Gynt isn’t really playing the “boards” at all: MacDonald’s adaptation was commissioned by Christopher Carter Sanderson, founder and artistic director of Gorilla Repertory Theatre, who directs the work in his customary out-of-doors setting, this time at the Summit Rock in Central Park. Sanderson (a friend and colleague) unquestionably pioneered the renaissance of environmental, outdoor Shakespeare; with Gynt, he’s clearly pushing the boundaries of the performative and the possible. There is no intermission with this Gynt, for example; audiences are invited to come and go as they please or need to. The original music is the province of Andre-Philippe Mistier.
But MacDonald is our focus today — she’s a Milwaukee-area writer, filmmaker and actress, and a founding member of Gorilla Rep. So her perspective on the company — and, obviously, Peer Gynt — is worth some dialogue.
The production runs through Aug. 30 at, once again, Summit Rock in Central Park — you enter at West 85th Street and Central Park West and walk a bit. For more information (tickets to Gorilla Rep shows are free), call 212-252-5258. Or visit www.gorillarep.org for more information.
And now, 5 questions Laura Lynn MacDonald has never been asked – and a bonus question.
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I took a master class at Chicago Dramatists with playwright Sarah Ruhl and she asked me to explore the most unstageable, imaginative aspects of the play I was working on. The character I was exploring happened to be a fairy (the kind with wings), and by the end of the class my fairy had transformed from a character that an acrobatic actress might play to a character that a lighting designer might play. She often exploded into colors when she got excited or dripped down the wall like tear drops when she got upset. I really embraced shattering all of my preconceived notions about who I was creating that day.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Will it put food on the table?”
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
After a staged reading of one of my plays someone asked, “Do you think you write with a male voice?” I took a second then answered, “Only when the men have lines.”
4) One of the most astounding aspects of Peer Gynt is its immensity — of the story, of its scope, of its dramatis personae. What made you want to adapt the play and what was the most difficult challenge for you in reshaping it for contemporary audiences? What will we discover about this Peer Gynt that other Peer Gynts overlooked?
Christopher Carter Sanderson had just finished directing a staged reading of my play, The Pecking Order, in Milwaukee when he called with the idea of adapting Gynt. From the get-go he wanted to present an accessible, contemporary version of the mythic, young capitalist in Ibsen’s play. Wall Street was crumbling and it seemed like a perfect time to delve in. I had complete freedom to construct a modern tale within the skeleton of the original play. What we have now is a poetic circus of a show where nine actors assume 56 roles and two actors take on the role of Peer Gynt. Like all Gorilla Rep shows, this will be a physical romp for both actor and audience.
5) Do you speak Danish? If you do, what are the challenges of translating Ibsen? If you don’t, well…what are the challenges of translating Ibsen? How do you ensure you’re as faithful to the text — or the idea of the play — as one might wish you to be? Also, when must Ibsen’s verse poetry inevitably yield to English?
I don’t read/speak Norwegian. The objective of our version of this play was to create an accessible adaptation of Gynt that followed the journey of the original. It was never our design to create a direct translation. I used an adaptation/translation that’s in the public domain for reference and often consulted my Norwegian playwright friend, Conrad Lawrence, with questions. We hope our production embraces the spirit of the original while delving deep into Peer’s modern psychosis. Our Gynt winds in and out of reality as he searches ever outward — for himself.
6) What special accommodations, if any, did you make in the translating and adapting of Peer Gynt to make it suitable for performing outdoors? In watching the play right now, are there lines you would still reshape to acknowledge the particular brand of al fresco theater Christopher Carter Sanderson specializes in?
Under Christopher’s direction I can be assured of having a cast that can physically and vocally meet the demands of performing outdoors in New York City. For Gynt, I knew that the ensemble would be the river that Peer rides on during the show. Each of the nine actors are playing multiple roles which they indicate by making specific character choices and occasionally using a mask or prop. The direction is swift and seamless and keeps the audience engaged from place to place in the intricate story.
The environment of Summit Rock (the highest point in Central Park) offered a precipice to gaze across the dunes of the Sahara or look out across the raging sea of the imagination. Regarding reshaping: there is one line I added specifically for our production. When Peer is asleep in a Moroccan camp, gorillas wake him up. He throws coconuts to ward them off and calls them the most disgusting beasts, separating himself from the apes before setting off to become Emperor of the world.