First Nighter: Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” Jacked Up to Today, New York Neo-Futurists Attempt “The Great American Drama”

About Henrik Ibsen’s picaresque, not to say meandering, Peer Gynt, a friend of mine insists he’s never seen a successful production. (He claims the same about Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth.) I can’t really recall ever seeing a go at Peer Gynt that satisfied me, either.

What I can now declare is that I hope I’m never again exposed to anything approaching the Peer Gynt revisacal–at the Mezzanine Theatre at the spanking new A.R.T./New York Theatres–that I disliked from its first ear-splitting chord. It’s a sky-high-decibel travesty perpetrated by Michi Barall, who wrote the update, Paul Lieber and Matt Park, who collaborated on the music, and Jack Tamburri, who directed and “originally conceived” the ill-conceived enterprise.

To be completely accurate, the Ma-Yi Theater Company undertaking is called Peer Gynt and the Norwegian Hapa Band. The brash Norwegian Hapa combo is arranged on a raised level behind the floor playing area where the seven troupe members unleash their acting when they do or don’t put down whatever instrument he or she plays.

The sounds they produce can be termed heavy metal or punk or grunge or call it what you will. I know what I’d call it, but cooler impulses prevail. Let’s just say you’ve heard it all before over the last few decades with nothing new added. Incidentally, they do work in a few licks from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt musings.

For those who’ve been spared Ibsen’s take on Norway’s venerable mythic figure, Peer (guitar-playing Park) is a fellow uncertain about his goals and from the git-go at unpleasant odds with haranguing mother Ose (keyboard-playing Mia Katigbak).

To find himself and also hoping to find a mate, he sets out on a journey that over the years takes him many places but is ultimately a can’t-get-no-satisfaction trek. Since the clangorous Norwegian Hapa Band is not there for nothing, one of Peer’s first modern-day aspirations is to be a rock star. No surprise there, huh? Before and after that there are other stops and other dalliances, such as one with taunting Ingrid (violin-sawing Angel Desai).

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the Barall-Lieber-Park-Tamburri assault is the incessant use of obscenities. (For the moment set aside the repeated employment of “awesome,” the favorite adjective in today’s television advertisements.) The creators might argue that were Ibsen writing today, he would have made free with the four-, seven- and 12-letter words.

No, he wouldn’t have, not on this sophomoric (and soporific) level. A determined social critic, he wouldn’t have played down to the level at which this Peer Gynt is pitched.

For the record, bassist Uton Onyejekwe, drummer-mandolinist Titus Tompkins, keyboardist Rocky Vega and bandleader-guitarist Lieber are the other performers doing their damnedest–perhaps too much–to rustle up hotsy-totsy theater. What they’re doing, however, isn’t quite deft enough. Meredith Reis is the set designer and Oliver Jason the lighting designer.

Asta Hostetter is the costume designer and runs up a rock-star suit for Peer that has some spark and several va-voom outfits for Desai to fill seductively. Chad Raines is the sound designer, and, boy oh boy, does he have a challenge that he meets as well as he can.
The Great American Drama isn’t a bad idea. Created by Connor Sampson, co-directed by Greg Taubman and written by Sampson, Nicole Hill, Dan McCoy and Katy-May Hudson, it’s a product of the New York Neo-Futurists.

In a way the title tells you everything you might want to know. The ensemble intends to present the best drama they can. The manner is which their aim will be accomplished is through including everything they’ve learned audiences expect as superior fare through surveys they’ve held–right down to puppets.

What ensues as they run down the long list of requirements–at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre/A.R.T. New York Theatres (see above)–is a series of skits involving romance, thrills, chills, you-name-it (which those surveyed have already done for you). The catch is that the skits aren’t nearly as amusing as the hard-working performers think they are.

At the end of the 90-or-so-minute show–after all the projections have flashed, filling in the dramaturgical requirements, and the puppets have been manipulated–the four performers ask if they’ve reached their great-American-drama goal. They receive a very strong rating. Only a small number of the audience members, including this one, demurred. So you can take it from there.

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