BWW Exclusive: Interviews with the Cast & Crew of Last Act Theatre Company's PEER GYNT
Last Act Theatre Company's production of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt is well underway, and BroadwayWorld Austin recently caught up with director Bridget Farias Gates, actor Andrew Bosworth, and music director Mario Silva to hear about this imaginative new production.
Peer Gynt tells the story of a young man who is forced to leave his hometown after running away with a young bride on her wedding day. He spends his life traveling the world. Along the way, he works in a variety of occupations and meets several characters, including a group of pirates and a troll king. As an old man, he is finally able to return home, where he is forced to confront his past mistakes. Fantasy and reality are seamlessly blended in this story of life, love, and learning to be one's self.
Director Bridget Farias Gates on PEER GYNT
BWW: What drew you towards adapting and directing this production of Peer Gynt?
BFG: I first saw a production of Peer Gynt as a freshman in college at a theatre competition. I was completely enchanted. It's fantastical and epic elements, of course, made it very appealing to me, but even more, I love that this story follows a man, through his entire life, searching for what it means to be "himself." I saw the production that St. Edward University did years ago, and again was completely absorbed the entire time.
I have, since then, wanted to direct it myself. The show in its uncut form is over 5 hours long. I cut and pulled from three different translations of the script. I then cut half of that script. Our version of the play is now 2 hours and 30 minutes long, a length I am very proud of as I feel and hope it has remained true to Peer's search for self, regardless of having to cut so much beautiful material. I very much want the audience to feel as if they are traveling with Peer. I want them to feel completely immersed in the action. Originally, I wanted the audience to actually move and change locations with Peer throughout the space, but when we moved into the venue during tech week, a wall had been built in the space that changed this plan completely...so we made do and now the action happens around the audience, above them and on all sides of them.
BWW: Peer Gynt is famous for being an epic piece of theater that blends fantasy and realism. Has the play's unique structure been a challenge or a blessing for you as adaptor and director?
BFG: Its blend of realism and fantasy is a blessing as a director, and a curse as someone trying to adapt, blend, and cut the script. As a director, your options are limitless. The text does not dictate how to block or interpret a scene at all. Getting to create this world with the cast, with fresh eyes and no preconceptions has been so wonderful. As an adapter of the text, these elements make cutting the script incredibly difficult. So many of the lines reference something significant that will happen later in the play. If you cut one chunk or scene, then the reason for Peer traveling to the next locale is lost. Cutting internally is very difficult because everything is purposeful. There are so many things Ibsen is commenting on. To cut one thing, makes the next not make sense.
BWW: Peer Gynt is the last of Henrek Ibsen's plays to be written in verse. Have you retained the poetic nature of the play?
BFG: The poetic nature of the play has remained completely intact, as I think it's very important to the flow and style of the play. I am hoping it feels as if you are watching moving poetry on stage.
BWW: There are a slew of locations and characters that Peer Gynt encounters over the course of the play. How are you handling the play's set and cast requirements?
BFG: More than anything, I wanted the audience to move with Peer Gynt, to really feel as if they were there with him, journeying with him. It is something, no matter how much I have loved other productions I have seen, that I haven't felt from them, so the traveling aspect was important to me. When the venue caused restrictions on that very last minute, the only solution was to have the action occurring all around the audience. I tried to use all of the levels and areas that were able to be lit for action to occur in, changing when Peer goes to a different locale.
BWW: You will be staging this production at the HOPE Outdoor Gallery. Has the outdoor venue changed the piece at all?
BFG: Putting this show up at Hope has been great in that it's so unique and we have audience members just walk up, not expecting to see the show and sit there and watch the entire thing. That is a very heartwarming, rewarding experience. Some of these people may never have the opportunity to watch live theatre again. The space itself has been incredibly challenging. The areas that I have the actors playing on (so that the audience can be on the safe terrain) is dangerous and tricky. The venue has no electricity and changes on a daily basis. And, it's not just the art that changes. Structures are added and taken away. It's required so much compromise and patience from everyone. But, I think the venue and show united make a very magical experience for the audience. It's totally worth it.
BWW: Why should people come see this show?
BFG: You are thrown between the conscious and unconscious. It's fantastical. There are trolls, pirates, exotic dancing girls. But, it's also so raw and touching and true. And, Andrew Bosworth's energy and life as Peer is so captivating to watch. Andrew and the ensemble really bring this epic play to life, and it's beautiful.
Actor Andrew Bosworth on PEER GYNT
BWW: Since Peer Gynt is a sprawling, epic piece, playing the title role must be a challenge. What's been the greatest challenge for you?
AB: It helps that Peer Gynt comes hard on the heels of Cyrano, another undeniably epic title role. But it's true, Peer is far, far more sprawling. Differentiating between Peer's different eras of life has been something I've needed to maintain focus on. In each, he's got different priorities and a slightly different opinion of himself. On top of that, in spite of all his lies, he shares lots of bald opinions, often stream-of-consciousness style. So balancing his flights of fancy, honest musings, and progressive socialization has been a bit of a maze.
BWW: Peer does a lot of unsympathetic things over the course of the play, and yet he's the hero. What is it like to play such a flawed character?
AB: Pretty awesome, really. I've had the privilege of playing lots of broken men lately. Of course, everybody's a little broken, but it's so much nicer when you've got a jackhammered psyche to wrestle with. It's like mountain climbing - flaws are handholds, and if you take the scenic route you may find a cave or two. Broken and bad men have one major advantage over more straightforward characters, and that is power, specifically the power they have over the audience. I can make you hate me and wallow in it or love me when you shouldn't, all without consequence. Winning the audience over against the odds is one of my favorite things; I got to do it up and down in Othello, and get the chance here again - it's like a game.
BWW: What has the rehearsal process been like for you?
AB: I made a habit of coming to the DAC several hours early and drilling lines alone until rehearsal started - the sheer amount of text to memorize was a challenge. And with so little time in each rehearsal to put the text on its feet, reinforcement had to be an independent task. I had very few nights off, since the scenes I'm not in are few and brief. And, of course, there were the usual absurd extra hurdles put up in front of us (always appreciated...). So the sheer weight of responsibility was singular.BWW: Is there a moment in the play that you like the most?
AB: It's so broad, it's hard to say. I'll admit, there are times I ad-lib and play with the audience that I love. I adore roles that give me the freedom to improv just a bit, since it's been so long since I've done proper improv comedy. In every show my mind is always whirling with sketch-comedy-versions of the scenes we're trying to rehearse seriously.
BWW: Why should people come see this show?
AB: The show is a curiosity among the popular theatrical canon. Ibsen has several ridiculously famous plays...and then there's this one. I refer to it as "the weird Ibsen." It's fascinating to see this play knowing what he went on to write. Further, the play is cinematic in scope. There's no respect for time or place, practicality or logic. So any production of the play has got a LOT of choices to make, few of them enviable ones. So I'd encourage a person to see any production they come across - no two could possibly be the same.
Music Director Mario Silva on PEER GYNT
BWW: The first production of Peer Gynt debuted a ninety minute score by Edvard Greig which featured "Morning Mood" and "In the Hall of Mountain King." Have you preserved Greig's music, or have you composed an original score for this production?
MS: Grieg's score certainly is in the mind of any composer that tackles Peer Gynt but as with most modern productions I have created an original score, or soundscape if you prefer, and have not utilized Grieg's music whatsoever. In fact, I intentionally did not listen to it or use it as inspiration.First and foremost, this is to make sure the music matches this particular production and its needs. I tried to look at the problem afresh, as Grieg would have done, and came up with a soundscape that I thought best suited the director's vision of the play taking into account my own interpretation of the play's themes and concepts, of which, with Peer Gynt, there is a superfluity. More particularly, the whole aesthetic of the original production was different than this one's and this is partly reflected in Grieg's score, which is considered a classic of any genre and has been used in countless films, cartoons and even popular music albums. However, while the music is timeless, its utility in a dramatic production has certainly waned. The needs of a modern interpretation of Peer Gynt require a more modern soundscape. While Grieg was still fairly firmly entrenched in the world of tonality, albeit an increasingly nontraditional one, my music is not bound by tonal considerations. This allowed me to create a varied soundscape reflecting the disparate climes that the play portrays (i.e. Norway, the realm of the Dovre Trolls and Morocco/Egypt), which was a central use of the music that Bridget and I outlined early in the process.
BWW: Will the music be performed live?
MS: Some of the music is performed live. For example, Taylor [Flanagan] and Abbey [Benold] play ukulele and viola, respectively, in the scene with the businessmen in Morocco. Other music, primarily that for the Dovre Hill trolls, is played from speakers and combines recorded performances that have been manipulated, electronic keyboards and playback of various instruments from Finale, the composition program I used to write the music. There are, of course, several songs in the show and these are done a capella. One of these is actually a transcription of a traditional Norwegian song, "Heaving the Anchor," which almost the whole cast sings before the trip back to Norway near the conclusion of the play.
BWW: How many musicians have contributed or are contributing to the play?
MS: Almost everyone sings at some point in the show but Andrew Bosworth (Peer) and Taylor Flanagan (Solveig) have all of the solo songs. Abbey Benold plays viola, Taylor also plays the ukulele and Kevin Gates plays mandolin. I played some of the electronic keyboard parts (with heavy arranging); there is also extremely slowed down flute and oboe that was recorded for a different show that I sampled. All of the rest is playback from Finale with arranging and production done in Garage Band.
BWW: How do you feel the music influences the play?
MS: I think the music provides a context for the locales in the play. It creates a surrounding within which the world of the play can live and breathe. Ideally, it balances and enhances the action and drama of the play without becoming distracting or simply indicating desired emotional response. So it's foundational. It's like costumes or props in that it helps the cast and audience believe that what they are doing and seeing is the truth. It helps them to suspend their disbelief and truly take that journey with the playwright and characters. Anyway, that's the ideal. But I also think music can easily be overused in any production and mine is a much more succinct score than the original. Music has the potential to add an incredible depth to a production but so does silence and one has to balance the two as a composer.
BWW: Why should people come see this show?
MS: People should come see this show because it fulfills the central promise of theatre: it makes you feel and it makes you think. Andrew takes the role of Peer by the reindeer's horns, so to speak, and wrestles with it to great dramatic effect. The rest of the cast does a great job of being a collective counterweight to him and helping us to see Peer as he truly is. Moreover, this is a truly unique space and a great play that isn't done very often and contains some really beautiful language and intriguing philosophical questions. I would also definitely recommend people read the full text, which can be found for free online.
PEER GYNT, produced by Last Act Theatre Company, plays HOPE Outdoor Gallery at 1012 Baylor St, Austin 78703 now thru November 2nd. Performances are Thursday - Friday at 7pm and Saturday - Sunday at 6pm. Tickets are $15. For tickets and information, please visit www.lastacttheater.com