PEER GYNT & the Norwegian Hapa Band is an ambitious retelling of Peer Gynt. Unfortunately, its creators go in for smug posturing that crush its traces of sincerity.
Hapa is a Hawaiian word meaning half, and is commonly used to describe people who are half Asian and half Caucasian.
Playwright Michi Barall’s episodic script is faithful to the original play’s plot but strategically has a contemporary sensibility. “We wanted to filter these questions through the social and political conditions of our own time, a time in which questions about individual and social identities are at the heart of how we understand national and global ecologies” is from Ms. Barall’s extensive program note.
Peer Gynt rides a motorcycle and becomes a motivational speaker. Colloquialisms and anachronisms abound. Harry Potter is mentioned, characters eat from a bag of Doritos and someone believes themselves to be a descendent of Boris Karloff. There are countless other attempts at humor.
IT’S AN ANTHEM
IT’S MY ANTHEM
IT’S PEER MOTHERFUCKING GYNT’S ANTHEM. MOTHERFUCKING GYNT. MOTHERFUCKING GYNT.
MOTHERFUCKING GYNT. MOTHERFUCKING GYNT. MOTHERFUCKING GYNT.
This is a sampling of Barall’s lyrics. Other songs are actually credible if not remarkable. The music by Paul Lieber and Matt Park is a fine assortment of grunge, rock and pop melodies. Kenneth Goodwin’s sound design is heavy on the bombast and that’s fine in a club, but in a theater it becomes numbing.
A major flaw is Peer Gynt. Personable, co-composer Park plays the title role. When we first see him, he’s wearing a hipster wool cap, plaid shirt and eyeglasses. Possessed of a good singing voice, his acting ranges from pleasantly monotonous to ineptly excessive. He strains to be charismatic especially in his dance moves and doesn’t succeed. Park’s performance has stamina but lacks grandeur to carry the leading role of this full-length musical.
Veteran actress Mia Katigbak is wonderfully hard-edged and daffy as Peer Gynt’s mother. Ms. Katigbak’s quirky, realistic presence is always a welcome experience in a production. Katigbak is equally as enjoyable in the additional roles of as a wacky German scientist and as a stentorian priest. She also plays keyboards and the glockenspiel with the band.
Angel Desai exhibits great comedic and dramatic range as Gynt’s first girlfriend and is several other showy roles. Ms. Desai is a brilliant violinist who performs with the band.
Lieber on guitar, Rocky Vega on piano and keyboard, Uton Onyejekwe on bass, and Titus Tompkins on playing percussion and mandolin make up the rest of the excellent band. They all also play a variety of cartoony characters in the actual show, some of different gender.
Director Jack Tamburri’s staging is adept at conveying visual spectacle. The pacing is as well swift as possible considering the scope of the material. Mr. Tamburri originally conceived this production.
Meredith Reis skillfully recreates the look of a rock club à la CBGB. There’s a long slightly raised, wooden platform where the band plays. It and the floor are decorated with colorful Keith Haring style graphics. Strings of Christmas tree lights are laced on the ceiling.
For the narrative portions, there’s an area with vintage wooden cabinets painted blue and a small table. The gold, streaming Mylar curtains on the back wall of the stage, open to reveal a backdrop that suggests an ocean liner and also at one point a large period drawing of The Sphinx when the action is set in Egypt.
The frenetic lighting design by Oliver Wason conveys a rock club vibe with darkness and smoke. There’s also the quality of the passage of time with its effects.
Much of Asta Hostetter’s costume design is at first worn jeans and T-shirts. As the show progresses, Ms. Hostetter provides many witty flourishes for the numerous characters. Hats with flowers, monkey masks, and a variety of robes and tunics are all cool touches. There is also Peer Gynt’s alluring hideous colored and black and white geometric suit when he has become wealthy.
Written and published in 1867, the somewhat autobiographical play (based partly on the history of Ibsen’s own family), Peer Gynt chronicles his life journey and adventures with fairy tale over tones over the course of decades in five acts. At Ibsen’s request, Edvard Grieg composed incidental music for the play that included the well-known “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” The play premiered in Norway in 1876.
Due to its large number of characters, complex central character, exotic locales and difficult structure, Peer Gynt has been rarely performed in modern times. It is certainly possible that it may lend itself to a musical incarnation but that is not demonstrated by this production.
PEER GYNT & the Norwegian Hapa Band (through February 11, 2017)
Ma-Yi Theatre Company
Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./NY Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.ma-yitheatre.org
Running time: two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission