SOMEWHERE in the second act, when Peer Gynt is stranded in the desert and offers half his kingdom for a horse, the stagehands accommodate him with a painted wooden creature that might have had trouble fitting through the gates of Troy. As its hulk lumbers forward, all eyes turn to the horse, Peer pauses, afraid that the thing might suddenly topple over, and you begin to wonder who's in control--the props or the actors.
Throughout the play we are barraged with creations like the horse that individually reflect great imagination but together conspire to break the play's rhythm and dwarf the actors' role. The designers, Peter Agoos and Franco Colavecchia, have produced aluminum trees that quality as sculpture but prove unwieldy and stunning wire masks for the stereotyped foreign companions aboard Peer's yacht that reveal their national character but muffle their voices.
If there are too many disturbances due to oversized props or sudden sound effects, it is only because Ibsen's stage directions (for example: "A jet of fire shoots into the air from the yacht, followed by thick clouds of smoke: a hollow report is heard... Gradually the smoke clears away: the ship has disappeared.") demand technical wizardry far beyond the capabilities of the Loeb. Peer Gynt's production staff should have accepted this, instead of burdening the stage with contraptions planned to meet the author's specifications that only sap the play of its dramatic strength.
Perhaps all these frills were meant to aid our understanding, but they're more distracting than anything else. Actually, Peer Gynt is written on too many levels and with too many intentional ambiguities to be fully grasped. Fundamentally, Peer is a man unwilling to commit himself to any person or principle, who wastes his years seeking fortune and glory, instead of staying at home with Solveig, the woman she loves him. Peer travels not only from Norway to Africa, peasant's hut to mad house, and youth to old age, but into a fantasy world as well. And the trolls and amorphous spirits he meets alter his life so drastically that the border between reality and fantasy becomes obscure.
Ibsen also wrote Peer Gynt to lampoon Norwegian egoism, self-sufficiency (presented as the trolls' motto) and political character, and you can see why almost anyone would be content to glean what meaning he could from the play. But Director Peter Frisch, who seems to want to drive home every nuance, cut the script sufficiently, and Peer Gynt, which runs over three-and-a-half hours, emerges much longer than the dramatic interest warrants.
When special effects don't interrupt and he doesn't have to wrestle our attention from the stagehands as they clear up the debris from the previous scene, Robert Larsen can demonstrate his ability, Peer, based on a folk hero, is an yarn-spinner and boaster, and Larsen is an excellent story-teller. From the opening scene, with Peer's fib of riding astride a reindeer-buck. Larsen reveals astounding acrobatic ability, vocal control, and stage presence, lending greater weight to Ibsen's lyrical verse. His versatility becomes apparent as his mood and expression age with Peer, who bears the scars of a weather-beaten, lonely old wanderer.
The leading females are also very capable. Although Maggie Brenner, who plays Peer's mother, Aase, moves too gingerly for an old woman in the opening scene, her death scene is one of the play's high points. As Solveig. Eden Murray's grace and warmth generate the impression of an innocent maiden, and her fine voice enhances her sensitive characterization.
There are so many admirable elements in Peer Gynt --William Rynders's evocative lighting. Frisch's choreography of group scenes, and several minor performances--that it's too bad the play wasn't produced on a more modest scale. Instead of over-reaching itself and trying to present Ibsen's entire conception, the production should have been, as the trolls might put it, more self-sufficient.