Peer Gynt Review
Hofstra’s Department of Drama and Dance brings Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt to life in the Black Box theater, condensing the rarely performed 1867 theatrical epic into an intimate story bursting at its seams with music, dance, and Ibsen’s evocative verse.
This Norwegian classic tells the story of Peer Gynt—from his adolescence to death—as he travels the world trying to evade community and to become anybody other than himself. Throughout his odyssey, Peer Gynt faces challenges both real and fantastical, from trolls to the inhabitants of an insane asylum, which he escapes with his characteristic lies, charm, and wit.
Director Marta Rainer has taken Peer Gynt—a piece difficult to stage due to its large scale—and framed it as a story-theater piece with a strong ensemble cast. Her direction carries poetic energy of the play’s language itself; scenes flow into one another with a dreamlike litheness.
The true star of Peer Gynt is its aforementioned ensemble cast, which dances to the melody of Ibsen’s verse, and sets the tone of locales from an idyllic Norwegian village to the sunny coast of Morocco using their diverse talents. Edvard Grieg’s majestic score of incidental music is replaced by the cast’s stunning vocal and instrumental performances of folk music, which continuously comment on the unfolding drama. Moreover, the cast uses evocative, traditional storytelling techniques such as dance and puppetry to tell Peer Gynt’s story. Perhaps it is the sheer beauty of this raw, folk style, that sheds a negative light on anachronistic beat-boxing, a forced performance of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” on the electric guitar, and other off-color slippages.
David Henderson’s set—an abstract representation of hills and mountains—gives the cast plenty of room to move and tell the story. At its center rests a sun that also serves as a cyclorama onto which scenery is projected. While the idea of projecting scenery is clever, the lighting, ensemble pantomime, and acting are sufficient to set the scene, and the projections often distract from the action of the play.
In addition to the talented ensemble, Jack Saleeby steals the show as Peer Gynt. His eyes flash with confidence and imagination, and he brings to the role a commanding, confident stature that can draw the audience from laughter to silent introspection in half a moment. After his performances this year as Peer Gynt and as the joyless slave Clov in Beckett’s Endgame, it’s clear Saleeby has a bright future ahead of him after graduation.
Though the play is long—about three hours and twelve minutes—this reviewer left the theater renewed, having shared the triumphs, burdens, sorrows, and ultimate salvation of Peer Gynt’s journey. Peer Gynt is a special play, and this is a special production you won’t want to miss.
Peer Gynt plays at the Black Box theater in the New Academic Building on Thursday, 4/14 Friday, 4/15, and Saturday, 4/16 at 8 PM, and Sunday, 4/10 and 4/17 at 2 PM. Tickets are $10, or $8 for senior citizens (over 65) or matriculated non-Hofstra students with IDs. Current students, staff, and faculty receive two free tickets with their Hofstra ID.