Robert Richmond, the New York director who has brought a kicky physical sensibility to classic works presented by Off Broadway's Aquila Theatre Company adds masks, movement and puppetry to a new staging of Henrik Ibsen's fantasia, Peer Gynt, presented by Two River Theatre Company in Manasquan, NJ, opening March 9.
The leaders of the small Equity company on the central shore of Jersey knew Aquila's potent stagings of Cyrano de Bergerac and Much Ado About Nothing, and thought Richmond would bring something new to their audiences. "We wanted to have Robert do something for us, and we were thinking of something from Shakespeare," Two River artistic director Jonathan Fox told Playbill On-Line. "I really wanted something more obscure. I knew Robert's talent was taking classic plays and working with an ensemble of seven or eight actors. We hit upon the idea of Peer Gynt."
Previews began March 7. Performances continue to March 24 at the Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan.
The Norwegian tale, written in verse, and performed here in a verse and prose English adaptation by Gerry Bamman and Irene Berman, follows young Peer as he flees the mountains of Norway and travels the world in search of love — and himself.
"Peer Gynt can be seen in many different ways," said Fox. "It's part folktale, part fable, part fantasy. It takes place in so many locales, both realistic and nonrealistic. Given Robert's visual sense and his history with using masks in some of his plays, I thought he would be a good [match]." If performed as written, Fox said, the play would run 6-8 hours. "We've done a lot of cuts and Robert worked with the translators of the play," Fox said, adding that the script being used was seen in 1992 at Hartford Stage. It now plays at 2 hours 45 minutes.
A Two River company of eight assumes 40 roles. Tony Award nominee Stephen Mo Hannan plays Old Peer. The cast includes Matt Benson as young Peer, Marina Re as Peer's exasperated mother Aase and ensemble members Jason Fraser, Jamison Stern and Oliver Wadsworth.
The fantastical play's theme is a life's journey, Fox said, but it's difficult to define the work — which has Peer traveling through the Troll Kingdom, Africa, madhouses and around the world — as being only about as one thing.
"That's the thing with Peer Gynt," he explains. "It encompasses such a wide story. It's a man's journey, a quest for greatness, a quest to answer the age old-riddle, 'Who am I?' — a quest, ultimately, for his own salvation. This production tries to bring the multiple facets out."
What is the style of the staging?
"Robert's very good working with actors to create not just different character, but animals," Fox said. "He worked with the costume designer [Deanna Berg] to create masks for the Troll Kingdom, and puppets in the Troll Kingdom. Peer uses a chair to show his flight on a reindeer, so the chair becomes a stag."
The stage of the 500-seat Algonquin Theatre has been stripped bare, and a potent lighting design is part of the production. Composer Anthony Cochran (an Aquila mainstay) penned an original, Celtic-flavored and eclectic musical score. Mira Kingsley choreographs and is part of the ensemble.
Tickets range $19-$35. Algonquin Arts Theatre is at 171 Main Street in Manasquan, NJ. For more information, call (732) 345-1400 or visit TRTC online at tworivertheatre.org.
— By Kenneth Jones