An Ibsen Play You Likely Haven't Seen
Ibsen said his dramatic poem "Peer Gynt" could never be staged. Those are fighting words for David Schweizer, who adapted it for the stage and is directing at the La Jolla Playhouse. We'll talk with Schweizer about the fantastical work involving trolls, flying pigs, and an onion.
David Schweizer adapted Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" for the stage and is directing the production at the La Jolla Playhouse.
"Peer Gynt" runs at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 24th.
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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. What can an epic Norwegian poem based on a fairy tale about a boy's adventures in the land of trolls and flying pigs have to say to a modern audience? Perhaps quite a lot if you see the tale of Peer Gynt as a play that questions who we think we are and what we want to be. Written in the 19th century by playwright Henrik Ibsen, this notoriously difficult theatre piece has been reimagined for a modern audience and just began its run at the La Jolla playhouse. Joining me now is David Schweitzer who adapted Peer Gynt for the stage. Hello and welcome.
SCHWEITZER: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
CAVANAUGH: David, you say you've had a relationship with Peer Gynt your entire life. Why is that?
SCHWEITZER: Well, I wouldn't have thought that I would have had that relationship. When I first started with the play. But it's become a kind of milestone for me as a theatre maker. I fell crazy in love with the script when I was at Yale. As a drama student falling in love with the theatre, really. And part of what attracted me to it was that it was so crazy. It was such a wild challenge. It was this phantasmagoria, this adventure piece. This life saga mixing dreaming with domestic scenes and family scenes, and it seemed so unpredictable coming from Henrik Ibsen who you knew from these stern social melodramas. This was his young man's play. And he wrote it as just a kind of outpouring before he wrote the other things and never even expected that it would be staged. Upon he just did it as a sort of challenge to see if anybody would want to take on this impossible thing. And so I did.
SCHWEITZER: And if I may, the time that you were introduced to this, are the late 60s, was also a time of great experimentation in the theatre.
SCHWEITZER: Right, right.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so that sort of piqued your interest.
SCHWEITZER: It played into that. Absolutely. And so a lot of theatre troops and artists were doing things about dreams and the unconscious. And so I did the piece then at Yale. I did it again with a company. I was doing a lot of work in eastern Europe in the '80s. And I did it with this wonderful polish company. And we ended up in Norway in oz low at the international Ibsen festival. Where at the same festival Ingmar Bergman was doing a person full length version of the play. And I had already started to kind of break it down and do it with fewer actors because I thought you'd gain some insights by doing that. I thought somewhat arrogantly. I hoped. And I thought we'd be left out of the festival. But people fell in love with our smaller version. And I got the blessing of the Ibsen family.
CAVANAUGH: That's remarkable.
SCHWEITZER: So I felt really wonderful about that. And I was already reorganizing the scenes and doing all these different things with the play, and I said, no, you have the spirit. We would like you to continue to work on it. So I have.
CAVANAUGH: Explain what this play is about, if you can. Who is Peer Gynt?
SCHWEITZER: Peer Gynt is all of our aspirations. Be they realistic or delusional. He is pure aspiration. A young man caught in a tiny farm town in the mountains who dreams way beyond any realistic expectation. What happens is the dreams become his driving force in the play. He gets into all kinds of scrapes. He's sort of a bad boy. But charismatic. So he steals a bride from a neighboring wedding party and ends up attached to the troll princess in the mountains and bewitched by the trolls and all of a sudden, you're into this area of folk lore and dreams. But Ibsen doesn't say this is a dream scene, this is a normal scene. He just jumbles them all together which is quite radical for play writing of that era, and I take full advantage of it in this contemporary era. And the scenes in this cavalcade of a life adventure just tumble on top of each other.
CAVANAUGH: There's an onion that plays a prominent part in this. What does it symbolize?
SCHWEITZER: Peeling the layers of our identity. Peeling the onion. Getting to the core, which in the language of Peer Gynt, I actually open the play with it, the famous onion speech, where they talk about layers and layers, and then where is the heart? And of course, there is no center to an onion. It's just nothing. It's just what you might have hoped. And so it's -- you know, I think it's stuck with me over the years in such a vivid way. It really is about this kind of questioning, which is perpetually interesting. And pier goes through different ages in his life. So the older person's point of view, the middle aged person's point of view, the younger person's point of view. And so every time I come back to the play, it seems very fresh to me.
CAVANAUGH: In different stages yourself.
SCHWEITZER: Yes. Now I'm a little closer to old pier when I started working on it want I was the anal of young pier. I also as a theatre maker love to try to organize adventures on the stage that -- feel fresh and intriguing to the audience. In this piece, just to corral it and turn it into a watchable theatre piece is great fun.
CAVANAUGH: That's what I was gonna say. You alluded to the fact that Ibsen himself thought the play might be unstageable. What are the elements that are particularly challenging? Even if your modernized version of the play.
SCHWEITZER: Well, the landscape of it is really varied and wild and unpredictable. You're home in a farm, you're in troll hall with these creatures. You're in Morocco. You're inside of some devilment. And the audience needs to go on kind of a wild ride. And I think we have framed it and used a vocabulary -- I have five actors telling the story and the men all take turns playing pier, having different points of view toward pier. So it's great fun to watch their transformations.
CAVANAUGH: How many characters do these five actors play?
SCHWEITZER: About 50.
SCHWEITZER: The so called normal if there is such a thing, production of Peer Gynt, would take five hours. It's an operatic experience. A huge cast and many sets and things. And ours takes two hours, and these five actors are just very charming and charismatic. And you can feel the pleasure that they're taking in bringing an audience along on this ride.
CAVANAUGH: David Schweitzer, the director of Peer Gynt at the La Jolla playhouse, can you share with us a moment or two of magic that people will be seeing in this production?
SCHWEITZER: Well, I don't want to give anything away, but I have to say that the three headed troll king is pretty good fun to be in a scene with 'cause that's a big wild mixture of personalities. And the production has a sort of throne together friendly homemade feeling. Every now and then there's some pretty wonderful effects. The entrance to Morocco is pretty great. I'm not gonna tell you exactly what happens, but it gets a wonderful gasp every night.
CAVANAUGH: We've been talking a great deal about a flying pig.
SCHWEITZER: How could I have not mentioned that? I think because I wanted it to be a surprise. Will but yes, there is a flying pig. You will see it. I promise you.
CAVANAUGH: What was the last time you staged Peer Gynt?
SCHWEITZER: I used to be sort of semibased in Los Angeles as well as New York and I did a lot of work with Tim Robbins actors' gang. And in about I guess 94 I did a production, an earlier version again with a smaller acting company, the young jack black was part of the ensemble. And most memorable and hilarious as one of the piers. The.
CAVANAUGH: As you would imagine.
SCHWEITZER: Yeah. And that was the last performance. Actually it's great fun because some people will be coming down from the LA area to see it.
CAVANAUGH: Some plays that are challenging and have a lot of tricks on the stage. A lot of magical effects are actually difficult for the actors to deal with. I wonder how the actors are feeling playing this immense amount of characters, and also dealing with the tricks on the stage.
SCHWEITZER: Right. This group of five actors are -- I guess I would say both really technically gifted and really good at what they do vocally, physically, they're very open, they have a lot of variety in their performances. And they also have a wild, great spirit. There's a bit of a sense of, yeah, I can do that. Do you want me to do anything more? So it's very important to choose a group like that when you're embarking on a project like that. That's that kind of infectious connection that the audience will feel. Then the audience will relax and enjoy taking a ride because they'll feel in good hands.
CAVANAUGH: When people hear about this, hear you talking about it, and read about it, I would imagine that there are still people who wonder what kind of a show this is. Is it a comedy?
SCHWEITZER: It is. I would say, think of it as a theatrical adventure whose roots are in fairy tale, folk story, legend. So it's like a recreation of a legend. So it has that feeling of an old story from somewhere being retold in a modern way.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have a favorite moment in Peer Gynt?
SCHWEITZER: I have to say that the favorite -- my favorite moment has become the end, which is very beautiful. Which is an E5518, which is a kind of blessing on this life. It's a little bit of a surprise. I won't say more, but it's -- it comes as a surprise because there have been so many twists and turns and then all of a sudden it allows the audience to experience a real kind of emotional epiphany, which I feel sort of lucky to be in the theatre at that point.
CAVANAUGH: Lots of people who think they know Hine Rick Ibsen are not really familiar with Peer Gynt. Why is that?
SCHWEITZER: I think because number one, it's very difficult to do so people don't try it. Number two, it's gonna be an adventure to do it, even if you're equipped to do it. And also, Ibsen's fame, you know, drawing audiences into the theatre, I mean audiences' expectations of going to see an Ibsen play is going to see a sober minded drama where people in dark clothes debate one another about issues. I don't mean to belittle it. He was a revolutionary dramatist. But this is a different story. This was the artist in the making. And it's a different thing. I think people are more familiar with the music it inspired, the Grieg, than the play itself.
CAVANAUGH: Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt suite. That's what came to mind when I heard this was gonna be at the La Jolla playhouse. I said, oh, it's a play!
CAVANAUGH: So do you see more Peer Gynts in your future after this?
SCHWEITZER: Well, I -- you know, this production at La Jolla playhouse was a coproduction with the Kansas city rep. Sole we have played it. We keep working on it and developing it. And I'm hopeful that what we have is a very produceable version, audience accessible version of this great complicated play that other theatres could do and might enjoy doing.
CAVANAUGH: So everyone learns it's a play.
SCHWEITZER: Exactly. I'd be happy to be the one that taught them that.
CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with David Schweitzer who adapted Hine Rick Ibsen's Peer Gynt for the stage, and he's directing the production at the La Jolla Playhouse, and it's running at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 24th. Thank you so much.
SCHWEITZER: Thank you. My pleasure.