Peer Gynt and the Norwegian Hapa Band Rocks Out

Matt Park as the stylish protagonist in Ma-Yi Theater Company's production of Michi Barall's Peer Gynt and the Norwegian Hapa Band, directed by Jack Tamburri. Photo: Hunter Canning.

Off-Broadway’s Ma-Yi Theater Company has given voice to many Asian-American artists since it was founded in 1989, and now it starts off 2017 with Peer Gynt and the Norwegian Hapa Band, written by Michi Barall and directed by Jack Tamburri. If, in 1867, Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt started modern drama by asking who we really are, this new work promises to fully bring Asians and Pacific Islanders into the quest. Though rock music is native neither to Norway nor to Hapa (a Hawaiian term for half of something) bands, I am fascinated by the idea of fusing unrelated ethnicities and theatricality into a classic philosophical text.

In Ibsen’s play, young Peer is studious of his surroundings but remains non-committal and frequently abandons those to whom he is connected. He goes to many dark places: there is a hint of romance with trolls, a conversation with a blob, a job as a slave trader, and fun in the sun with the Sphinx; always, Peer “goes roundabout” and avoids direct action.

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Peer Gynt has inspired many adaptations, such as Grieg’s orchestral suites (cleverly quoted in the new production) and Will Eno’s Gnit. Ma-Yi’s new production is likely to rock even harder than those that came before it. Will this be an endless adventure with the goal of escaping reality? As Barall states in a promotional clip about the show, “the reason to go to the theater is to experience a sense not of comfort but of challenge, of curiosity, of growth”:

The composers (Matt Park, who plays Peer, and Paul Lieber, who plays the bandleader and many other roles) help drive the show. As written, Peer has the habit of annoying his feisty mother (Mia Katigbak), but retains the affection of Solvay (Rocky Vega). Uton Evan Onyejekwe provides moral counterpoint as young Helga and the ferryman of the Divine. Angel Desai is on fire as many women in Peer’s life (troll princess, bride Ingrid, Middle Eastern music star Anitra, the Devil, etc.)

The musical soundtrack and Peer’s rock-star posture brilliantly update our hero’s m.o. by varying his persona. Through many musical modes, such as punk, glam, MTV-flavored synth pop, devotional-type country, rock à la Fleetwood Mac and love ballads, Peer is always something — but never himself.

Peer Gynt and the Norwegian Hapa Band runs through Feb. 11 at the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 W. 53rd St.). For tickets, click here.

And now, 5 questions that Michi Barall and Jack Tamburri have never been asked:

Peer goes to many dark places.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

MB: I can’t quite think of a single question, but I can think of a single response, which came from Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson, who wrote an article some years ago in Theatre Survey about my play Rescue Me [also produced by Ma-Yi]. Josh’s article is actually a brilliant meditation on how performance can suspend juridical and racial meanings by making them “inoperative.” The notion of the inoperative, which he borrows from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, really captured for me what it is I want to do in the theater — to use performance to question social formations, to celebrate the “inoperative” as a way of opening up space for new forms of social meaning; to resignify (an old text, narrative or performed identity) to point to something beyond what we accept as the given status quo.

JT: When it’s most successful, my work tends to live in a peculiar tonal space in which signifiers of comedy actually elicit dread, and vice versa (this Peer Gynt is no exception). A friend once asked me, “Am I supposed to laugh or call the police?,” which made me feel pretty good.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

MB: I think it’s the question I ask myself from time to time, which is why don’t I write a totally produceable play with two to four actors in one room. And that’s only really an “idiotic question” because it’s not something I’m suited to, or that I really want to do in any way. What I think is that given what TV and film can do in terms of naturalistic performance, theater is really a commitment to both age-old and new forms of theatricality — by that I mean spectacularity, but also of liveness. Part of what we wanted to do here was to think about the particular theatricality of the “rock concert” or “band performance” alongside the more traditional theatricality of a “play,” with characters and a narrative (albeit a fantastical one!).

JT: “Are you a ‘conceptual’ director?” I think the American tendency to characterize certain theater directors as “conceptual” (as opposed to “good”) is incredibly disheartening. Smart directors of text-theater derive performance concepts from the material in order to bring the material forward, to amplify its voice, not to aggrandize themselves or squander a great work. “Rock music Peer Gynt,” for instance, is indeed a high concept but one that came directly out of what the text itself was telling us.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

MB: I think it’s the flip side of the question people ask actors all the time: “How do you learn all those lines?” For playwrights, it’s often: how do you come up with what people say? Coming up with dialogue is much, much easier than the real task at hand, which is constructing a total experience in time and space.

JT: “Why are you doing this?” The choices I make are, to me, intuitive and reflective of reality. Particularly when it comes to adaptation, the connections I find between classic texts and contemporary idioms feel obvious to me, but I guess sometimes surprise audiences.

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Apropos of disturbing current political trends, how does it feel to create a play about identity?

MB: I know Jack has a different answer to this question which is terrific. I think this is explicitly a play that challenges the very notion of identity. I think identity politics have driven us away from the important questions about social formations: how do we fight together these social constructs (like race and gender) that, by their very nature, divide us? How do we see these constructs for what they are: social realities rooted in the political and economic imperatives of those in power. This is not to disavow the extraordinary and important work of political activists or even those who have grounded their work in identity, particularly minority identities. This is simply to say that at the end of the day, we have more common ground when we understand what Peer understands — that when you peel away the layers, there’s nothing there. Unlike Peer, I think of that nothing as productive — a kind of Buddhist understanding of nothing and formlessness, one that is ultimately emancipatory.

“Am I supposed to laugh or call the police?”

JT: Peer Gynt & The Norwegian Hapa Band isn’t just a play about identity. It’s a play about a thin-skinned man who thinks the point of life is to turn his identity into a brand. We started working on this play more than two years ago and at that time it felt like a necessary exploration of disturbing trends, though we couldn’t point to something specific and say “That’s what we’re talking about.” Now, unfortunately, we can. Of course, Peer Gynt is also about a lot of other things, like national identity, the power of imagination, the destructive engine of the sex drive, and death-acceptance. That’s why it’s a monumental work which continues to reward exploration — it’s not reducible to satire, though satire is part of it. Ultimately, I think what we’ve put onstage is a figure who is actually more complicated, more interesting and far more sympathetic than any single figure we recognize from public life.

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Ibsen wants you to ask him three questions he can answer from the afterlife. What questions do you ask? What are his responses?

MB: I can’t ask Ibsen any questions — in part because I can’t think of his intentions or wishes or I’ll be sunk. What I continue to do is to ask questions of his text: “What is this aria on the emptiness of the self doing here?,” “What is the role of the women in Peer’s life?,” “In what ways is the text musical or promotes musicality?,” “What does this journey of this man through his entire adult life mean to us today?” Our answers to these questions are encoded in this version. We are all shaped by where and how we inhabit our lives in the social grid, so I don’t know who Ibsen would be today. He was a social progressive in his own time in many ways, and a modernist, and yet he was also very much a product of his time, so I can’t quite imagine how he’d answer things today. And I can’t quite imagine how he’d respond to our answers to his play. But I imagine that, like most of the playwrights I know, he’d be happy the play is still in production, and still part of a theatrical conversation, almost 150 years later.

JT: I’ll be honest, Mr. Ibsen: we’ve mostly jettisoned your religious imagery, particularly around the character of Solveig. A woman whose Christ-like self-abnegation redeems a profligate man is not a figure we particularly hungered to represent onstage. How important was that to you?

Henrik Ibsen: Oh, don’t sweat it. I was only trying to articulate and then skewer Norwegian cultural identity by meticulously constructing it out of a combination of folk myth, Christian iconography and contemporary references. Solveig’s sacrifice is intentionally problematic in all sorts of ways that I trusted my audience to pick up on but hey, do your thing. I hear ambiguity isn’t really on the table in 2017.

JT: Harsh! I think you’d actually really appreciate our reconstruction of Solveig (Solvay for us). She’s got your Solveig’s thoughtfulness and perceptive powers, but she’s also totally on her own journey, which actually feels like a pretty Ibsenian move, considering your later work. Anyway, how do you feel now about Peer as a character we’re expected to invest in for five acts, after focusing so much subsequent energy on Nora, Hedda, Ellida Wangel and other protagonists who have been brutalized by oblivious men like him?

HI: Peer’s gender in relation to society is as much a part of his story as Nora’s is of hers. The entitlement and impulsiveness that infect his actions, despite his gigantic heart, are tragedies parallel to Nora’s suffocated brilliance. They are what is insisted upon by a ruthless gender system.

JT: What do you think of Grieg’s score — which is now more generally recognized than your original text?

HI: Not enough electric guitars.