Svein Sturla Hungnes and company in Peer Gynt(© Lars Erik Skrefsrud)
Svein Sturla Hungnes and company in Peer Gynt
(© Lars Erik Skrefsrud)
If you only know Henrik Ibsen through A Doll House, Ghosts, or Hedda Gabler, the iconic playwright's Peer Gynt will come as a surprise to you. In contrast to the modern realistic dramas named above, this work was written in 1867 in the style of a poetic fantasy; Ibsen intended it to be read rather than performed, but it became so popular among readers that he crafted a stage adaptation in 1876. Now, an abridged concert version of an acclaimed Norwegian production of Peer Gynt has come to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for three performances only.

Inspired by Norwegian fairy tales, the play details the misadventures of the feckless title character, who crashes a wedding, runs off with the bride, is subsequently banished from his village, dreams of a dalliance with the troll mountain king's daughter, and so on. Peer eventually accepts the love of a good, faithful woman named Solveig, but soon he's off again to become involved in all kinds of selfish foolishness.

Because the work wasn't originally written for the theater, it contains many scenes that are a huge challenge to stage, even in Ibsen's revised and edited version. Hence, this presentation utilizes film clips that are projected on a large screen above the action. Happily, it also features the gorgeous incidental music that Edvard Grieg composed for the first production, here played by the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Timothy Myers. (You're probably familiar with this score even if you don't realize it; such sections as "Morning Mood" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King" have been heard in countless films and television commercials.)

Peer Gynt is being performed in English at the Delacorte, and some of the cast members are more successful than others in terms of pronunciation and articulation. Unfortunately, one of the least successful is Svein Sturla Hungnes, whose thick accent renders a large percentage of the title character's lines unintelligible. And though Hungnes -- who also directed the show -- is dynamic and charismatic as Peer, he's at least 25 years too old to be credible as the callow fellow of the play's first two thirds. But the lovely, more age-appropriate Linda Øvrebø does a beautiful job with Solveig's songs and dialogue; Kari Simonsen is compelling as Peer's mother, especially in her death scene; Mari Maurstad is a riot at the mountain king's ugly daughter; and Stein Grønli is wonderfully creepy in his brief appearances as the Button Molder, a sort of grim reaper figure.

By and large, the orchestra plays persuasively, though the opening night performance was marred slightly by a few ragged moments of ensemble and some annoying bursts of noise from the sound system. The score is presented as written except for bizarre new arrangements of the three sections heard during the Morocco scene. A chamber choir, led by Nina Moen, sings lustily.

The only major prop used in this concert version of the show is a wagon. (I'll bet it's the same one seeen in The Public Theater's recent production of Mother Courage and Her Children at the Delacorte.) Film director Arne Rostad has captured breathtaking scenes of fjords, mountains, and meadows that will make you want to hop a plane to Norway as soon as possible. The costumes, by Ingrid Nylander and Hungnes, are effective -- particularly those for the trolls.

This presentation of Peer Gynt is a heavily scaled-down version of a spectacular outdoor production that's seen annually at Lake Gålå in Norway. Despite the simplified staging, the cast still numbers 150 in total. There's also a good deal of choreography in the show, and a really fabulous tumbler. New Yorkers should be glad for the opportunity to see a rarely staged Ibsen work performed by a Norwegian company, with Grieg's matchless score as accompaniment. But if you do plan to attend, bring your woolies: It's getting cold in the park at night!