First things first.
An interesting failure such as Paul Silverman's Indian and Kathakali-inspired staging of Ibsen's "Peer Gynt"--at the Skylight Theatre, simply titled "Gynt"--is worth more than a hundred safe successes. It is worth more, at least, to those who see Los Angeles as becoming a home to global theater. Silverman takes us around the world all right, with inspiration and amateurism.
The choices he makes as director will lose some viewers. They might object to his revisionism, his contemporary references, his obvious soft spot for exotic images. Others might chide him for the entire Oriental style. He intercuts Indian, Japanese, southeast Asian and Egyptian styles and references like so many architectural motifs on a typical Los Angeles street.
Isn't "Peer Gynt," as well, a fundamentally Western text, both in its narrative preoccupation with the self (Peer's drama is not unlike Candide's) and its caustic, satiric view of existence (Peer: "Life's an awful price for being born")?
Then again, I don't immediately recall that line being in the compressed adaptation Silverman, Hugh Estin (also the show's lyricist), and the cast have fashioned. The experiment here is an unabashed attempt at finding that meeting ground between mysticism and absurdism, cosmos and self. Some experiments are their own best argument. "Gynt" is sometimes one of those.
Gynt's journey, from precocious youngster under the wing of his mother (Michelle Waxman) to a doddering man of "mediocrity" unpeeling the onion of life to find his true self, is equal parts heartfelt romance and ironic comedy (Ibsen was trying to have it all, too).
The basic problem, under Silverman's hand, is that "Gynt's" romance is sloppily conveyed, and the comedy veers to the slapstick, muffling the echoes and depth of irony. The company juggles dancing, Kathakali technique and elaborate costume changes, but fumbles the subtext of it all.
The deeper problem, one that's recently become a mini-epidemic in local theater, is that the director's ambitious vision far exceeds his cast's grasp.
If all we needed from a theater work were images, Silverman's would be more than enough. With a carefully chosen backlight (Marriane Schneller's lighting design shows a lot of ingenuity) or a hanging ruby-red cloth, Silverman can suggest a world. He knows his theater magic. But we need magical performers too, and nobody here is up to the task.
Kent Kirkpatrick's unenviable task is to play Gynt young and old (the role is traditionally broken up among two or more actors). He may be game for it, and we may see all the gestures, but not the actor's mind ticking. If ever there was a character who went through a sea change from self-absorption to self-realization, Gynt is it. With Kirkpatrick, this remains on paper.
Meg Kruszewska's Solveig suggests a mystery just beyond reach, yet a homely woman, too. At least she doesn't overact (a sure sign of actors in too-deep waters) like Waxman, Jodie Self, David Michael Parker and Mark del Castillo-Morante, who all double- or triple-up on roles. Asit Vyas plays the drummer/narrator who guides us along in a unique pidgin English with pixieish charm.
Jan Zeitlin, credited with choreography and Kathakali training, makes Silverman's vision move, and the largely non-Asian cast looks well-practiced. Consuelo and Bruno Zoelly-Tankerel's set design makes that same vision shine and flutter with few materials.
Vyas' drum music adds much color, while Joseph Seserko's taped synthesizer music adds nothing.
Performances at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave. run Sundays at 3 p.m. indefinitely; (213) 466-1767.