Theater note: ‘Peer Gynt’ reaches deep into your soul…assuming you’ve got one (i.e. you are not a troll)


In Humanities class at Austin High, we had read about Henrik Ibsen‘s character Peer Gynt (say “pare,” not “peer”)—about the man who would not make commitments to family and home; who would sell friends down the river (not to mention selling slaves) without remorse; who got himself into more fistfights than Popeye the Sailor Man and who justified himself with the very same “I yam what I yam.” At least Popeye stuck around to protect Olive Oyl and Sweetpea, whereas Peer Gynt would have punched up old Bluto and left town.

I felt giddy and grown up filing into the Guthrie that morning in 1980, my Peer Gynt ticket in hand. The three-hour and 30-minute play would be performed in two parts, with lunch in between. Our Humanities teacher (my father) would be taking us to Rudolph’s Barbecue. To have enjoyed a play in translation as much as I did (and to have stayed awake for Acts Four and Five, after barbecued ribs) thrilled me at age 17.

Naturally, my expectations for the return of Peer Gynt to the Guthrie were enormous. This time, a two-story escalator swept me to the thrust stage in the new Guthrie building by the river. This time, nearly three decades later, my advance reading focused on the new translation of the play by author, poet and native Minnesotan Robert Bly.

What I loved about Robert Bly’s translation of this play is that it’s funny—much funnier than I remember from 28 years ago. Perhaps that is because I “get it” now. But Bly kept Ibsen’s jaunty rhythm and rhyme to the point where it felt like an English salon party where witty Brits take turns exchanging riddles and couplets. It felt intimate. It reached inside and shook things up a bit.

Aside from minor miscues that are typical of any opening night, the play was performed flawlessly. I say that from the perspective of a viewer who has only the most diluted line to a Norwegian heritage, and who did not conduct a post-interview with the director. I also like to think I have a pretty solid sense of self, and of my purpose in the world—but I’ll admit that there were moments during the play when I wondered if I sometimes fall prey to the troll characters’ philosophy: “Just be yourself; you’re good enough.”

Peer Gynt, the man, with all his energy and hard-working ancestry and storytelling prowess, squanders all of it, right up to the end. We, the audience, shared both laughter and tears of recognition. I have got to believe that Albert Brooks was inspired by Ibsen when he wrote, directed and starred in the movie Defending Your Life.

There is one redeeming moment when Peer’s mother is dying, and he takes her on a fanciful sleigh ride to the Pearly Gates, helping her to slip away peacefully. Not that I’m planning on dying any time soon, but as the mother of a young man whose hubris sometimes makes me shake my head, the scene was comforting. It also brought to mind the movie Big Fish, in which we’re asked to decide whether telling fantastical stories is okay, and whether some of those stories might be, in a mystical sense, just as true as anything else.

While the new adaptation of Peer Gynt is still a bit more than three hours long including intermission, I enjoyed it from beginning to end. The actors are milling about onstage 15 minutes prior to curtain, preparing for the modern-day Peter Gynt’s 50th birthday party. It’s being held in an old barn that was part of his father’s farm, and memories come haunting in a cross between A Christmas Carol and The Wizard of Oz.

Consumers of contemporary literature will notice parallels between the mansion with a mermaid door that Peer dreams of building, and the palace that Jeannette Walls‘ dad is always going to build in her memoir The Glass Castle. In fact, I think that Rex Walls and Peer Gynt have a great deal in common, except that Peer is fictional. And more of a troll.

Theater always strikes me as an experience beyond books and movies. An immersion into story and emotion that’s right there in front of you, in the flesh. And it’s more than what’s on stage. It’s the grandeur or simplicity or crudeness of the theater…the collective responses of audience members of all stripes…and the knowledge that even though the script doesn’t change, no two audiences will ever see exactly the same show.

On this opening night, those of us who braved the minus-14-degree temperatures were rewarded with a special soliloquy by lead actor Mark Rylance after the standing ovation. He bade us to sit, cracking a joke befitting the character he plays. Then he gave us a glimpse into his own clearly very deep soul.

He said that Peer Gynt may represent too many men these days—men who set out in pursuit of material wealth and leave their friends and families behind. Men who want to make a name for themselves and will stop at almost nothing to do it. But there is one man here tonight, he said, who always stops to make sure others are following. A man who’s out ahead, and yet who guides and mentors with patience, and who made it possible for the actors to shine in this play. And then he asked Robert Bly to stand.

The fact that Bly’s cap of white hair rose from our very row, one section over, made the moment absolutely magical. He stood. One by one, every audience member stood, too, and hailed the man who brought us translations of Rumi from the original Persian and Pablo Neruda from the Spanish, and who stirred both souls and controversy with his primal screaming men’s groups and his 1990 bestseller Iron John: A Book About Men.

To me, the acknowledgement was touching, not only because Bly is 82 years old, and people of that age deserve way more recognition and respect than we usually give them in America, but also because of the history that Bly and Rylance share. They met years ago, at an old house in the south of England, quite near where my family lived in 1974. There, 90 men had gathered to hear Bly tell stories and read poetry. Hello, I want to live in a place where men gather for storytelling instead of for football on TV!!! (Funny, the trolls in Peer Gynt toss a pig’s head for fun.)

Rylance said Bly’s reading sessions “had the most profound effect” on the men in attendance. “There were all kinds of things being experienced and understood and spoken about; mostly there was enormous grief.” I felt that profundity in watching Peer Gynt. If Peer Gynt’s character represents the worst of men, surely Mark Rylance and Robert Bly give us examples of the best of them.

Peer Gynt plays at the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust Stage through March 2. Tickets $24-$69 at or 612-377-2224.

P.S. Another part of the Guthrie experience is meeting and greeting in the lobby. Thanks to Rojan Preston and Neal Justin of the Star Tribune, I met playwright and director Casey Stangl, who’s in town from L.A. to direct Third, opening Feb. 22 at the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage. I can’t wait to see that, given that Stangl directed Fully Committed, one of my favorite theater experiences ever (and one that my son still remembers with a chuckle—he loved it). Stangl is a filmmaker now, too—she said the debut last week of her first film was a fantastic experience. I didn’t get a chance to ask her what it’s about, but I suspect it’s a romantic comedy called C U @ ED’S (a text message! how very 2008). Keep your eyes open for the Minneapolis debut!

Anne Nicolai ( lives, works, plays, and blogs about arts and culture in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Visit