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THEATER REVIEW : Appeal of 'Peer Gynt' Interpretation Limited

June 22, 1995|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Who are you?" asks the youthful, titular hero of Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" of one of the ominous creatures he encounters in his travels.

"Myself," comes the enigmatic reply from the mythical Boyg. "Can you say as much?"

The irony is that where questions of identity are concerned, Peer Gynt is all but clueless. He's so taken with overblown fantasies of himself as conquering hero, emperor and irresistible Don Juan that useful self-examination is out of the question.

And so, in John Blondell's highly stylized staging for Lit Moon Theatre Company, self-knowledge remains an elusive will-o'-the-wisp amid Peer Gynt's adventures with mountain trolls, princesses, sea journeys and madhouse inmates.

Santa Barbara's preeminent experimental theater group, Lit Moon intriguingly finds more affinity in Ibsen's rarely performed 1867 verse drama with the existential surrealism of Samuel Beckett than with the hard-hitting social realism that distinguished the playwright's later work.

Using an abstract performance space flanked by towering four-level racks of clothing, the ensemble uses dance-inspired movement, masks and elaborate lighting effects to animate Ibsen's episodic pastiche of social satire and Nordic mythology. Thrusting the work's theatricality to the forefront, costume changes are performed onstage, with performers rummaging through the racks for their next incarnation with the determination of Blue Light Special junkies.

Only Matthew Tavianini maintains a single role, as Peer Gynt, though his character keeps shifting--he starts out a proud, boastful youth and progresses through the stages of life to old age, encountering his share of horrors and disappointments along the way.

Tavianini's second-act transformation into a yuppified "citizen of the world" is particularly amusing. Later on, when faced with the prospect of being re-minted like a coin that's seen too much use, his antagonist (Simon Williams) observes, "Your self is what you've never been, so what difference if it gets melted down?"

Peeling the conceits of Peer Gynt's false ego like layers of an onion afforded Ibsen ample opportunity to poke fun at the foibles of European culture, though much of his biting topicality hasn't survived the intervening century.

To compensate for the gaps in a work even the playwright never attempted to stage, the entire company uses tremendous skill and energy to evoke a dreamlike experience amid Theodore Michael Dolas' lighting and scenery.

Victoria and Lesley Finlayson, Shana M. Lynch and Stan Hoffman provide a whirlwind of revolving characters--sometimes difficult to keep track of. Atmospheric music and sound effects by James Connolly weave an eerie, brooding sonic texture throughout.

Nevertheless, the company hasn't found enough diversity in this succession of 17 scenes centered around Gynt's hollow character to broaden its appeal beyond a highly specialized literary audience. Even striking originality wears thin with repetition, and there's a lot of redundant territory that cries out for secession.

Details

* WHAT: "Peer Gynt."

* WHEN: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, Sunday at 4 p.m. (closes Sunday).

* WHERE: Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara.

* HOW MUCH: $10.

* CALL: 963-0408.

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