Many theater artists promise to take audiences on a journey. With his ambitious new production of Peer Gynt, director John Blondell plans to fulfill that pledge quite literally.
During the next two weekends, audiences will experience the first three acts of Henrik Ibsen’s epic drama at the Porter Theatre, on the campus of Westmont College. Then, after a break for dinner, they will gather at Center Stage Theater in downtown Santa Barbara for acts four and five. (They’ll also have the option of seeing the two parts on Thursday and Friday nights, respectively.)
“The essential motif of the play is travel,” Blondell noted. “Peer is always on the go. He’s traveling through space and time—as well as inward, into himself. I wanted to mimic that experience.”
It’s a typically gutsy move by the innovative director, who is both a theater professor at Westmont College and artistic director of the Lit Moon Theatre Company.
“I’m really thinking of this as an event,” he said of Peer Gynt. “The play has such riches in it! The first time I saw it was in 1994 in Stratford, and I was profoundly affected by it. I walked around for months seeing the world through the lens of this play. That’s part of the reason I directed it in 1995. Now, I want to do it in its entirety.”
His 1995 staging at Center Stage was Lit Moon’s fifth full production, and the first to feature music by Jim Connolly. As with most Peer Gynt productions, the play was cut to the point where it could be performed in a single evening.
But this time around, Blondell decided to tackle the entire 4½-hour text, using a cast of six Lit Moon actors and 14 Westmont theater students. “I was interested in climbing that mountain again, and I thought I had the actors to do it,” he explained. “The first three acts of the play are Peer’s youthful adventures. In the fourth act, the character has come into middle age, and in the fifth act, he is in old age. I cast a student, Chris Wagstaffe, as the first Peer, Peter Duda as the middle-aged Peer, and Stan Hoffman as Peer in old age. I want the audience to really feel that 50-year trip over four and one-half hours.”
Peer Gynt, which Ibsen referred to as a “dramatic poem,” has little in common with the playwright’s famous social protest dramas such as Ghosts and A Doll’s House. While those plays are tightly constructed and fundamentally realistic, Peer Gynt wanders freely, incorporating elements of Norwegian folklore in a story of one man’s adventure-filled life.
And yet, “for all of his Norwegian-ness, the character seems to me to be quintessentially American,” Blondell said. “He has the ability to transform himself, to shape himself to fit new situations.”
A young braggart, Peer is banished from the rural valley of his birth when he seduces an unhappy bride. After encountering the trolls of the mountains—subhuman creatures who symbolize self-centeredness—he spends many years traveling abroad, assuming roles such as businessman, missionary, and slave-trader. After living a chameleon-like life, he returns home to face death, uncertain of who is really at his core.
“How do we define ourselves? How do we know when we are following the life we should be leading? The play asks these profoundly true and profoundly unnerving questions rather boldly, and I try to play them with conviction, theatricality, and a lot of humor,” Blondell said. “I think this is essentially a comedy. I want to keep the play bubbling.”
Blondell is using two different theatrical styles for the play’s two halves. The first three acts, at the Porter Theatre, will be played against the backdrop of a 24-foot-wide mirror. Blondell calls this a visual metaphor for “all the self-reflective aspects of the play, and all the doubleness of Peer.”
For the final two acts, at Center Stage, “we are using a lot of shadow play,” he said. “The visual representations are created through cutouts and puppets. There’s a wonderful moment where a train of camels slowly moves across the horizon. We’re in a constant state of transformation.”
So why return to this tricky, somewhat unwieldy material? “I think that I’ve grown since (the 1995 production),” Blondell said. “I think I have other things to offer this text. If you want to keep growing, you have to keep grappling with these masterpieces that defy easy solutions.”
Even if that means facing some Peer pressure.
Peer Gynt, a Westmont College Festival Theatre/Lit Moon Theatre Company coproduction, shows Saturday, October 15-Sunday, October 23, at Westmont’s Porter Theatre and Center Stage Theater. For tickets ($26 general admission, $14 students and seniors) see centerstagetheater.org or call 963-0408.