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Peer Gynt and the Norwegian Hapa Band

Henrik Ibsen's epic story gets a 21st-century rock-and-roll makeover.

Matt Park as the title character in Peer Gynt and the Norwegian Hapa Band, directed by Jack Tamburri, for Ma-Yi Theater Company.
(© Hunter Canning)

Ma-Yi Theater Company makes a bold choice in selecting Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt as its latest project. Under the framework of a modern rock musical, the company takes on a notably convoluted dramatic poem, best known for its fanciful characters, spectacular settings, and multigenerational storytelling. Playwright Michi Barall shaves down the massive life story of Ibsen's title character (based on a Norwegian fairy tale) to a manageable two-and-a-half hours, reshaping the plot around modern dialogue and roof-shaking tunes from the accompanying "Norwegian Hapa Band." But amid all the 21st-century updates, the piece loses its feeling of wonder and universality that make theater practitioners continually try to crack open the story of Peer Gynt.

The music, which should be the key to unlocking this version of the tale, immediately becomes the greatest wall between the audience and the characters — a wall primarily made of noise. Bandleader Paul Lieber and Matt Park (who also performs the title role) have written some nice melodies, but few of them are audible beneath the piercing decibels with which sound designer Chad Raines bombards the crowd. Lyrics are lost in a sea of rock-and-roll machismo (with multicolored concert lighting by Oliver Wason to match), and the story unfortunately goes with it.

Still, we can glean the basic trajectory of our antihero's journey. Peer — son of the once-great Jon Gynt who squandered his fortune — begins as an impetuous youth, who falls in love with the beautiful Solvay (an ethereal performance by the lovely keyboardist Rocky Vega). Still, this doesn't keep him from spending an awkward night with someone else's bride-to-be, Ingrid (played by the commanding vocalist and fiddler Angel Desai). He goes on to meet the Great Boyg and a group of trolls who inspire the philosophy "to thy own self be true." This encounter is closely followed by a run-in with the "Girl in Green" (also played by Desai), who claims that Peer is the father of her child — though the "to thy own self be true" mantra seems to outweigh any potential emotional obligations therein.

One final meeting with his dying mother (a charismatic Mia Katigbak) leads Peer to his next career as a wealthy smuggler and human trafficker. With newly slicked hair and a bright patterned suit (a sudden shift from the hoodie and Converse sneaker aesthetic created by costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter), the mogul boasts about his financial achievements to an audience of adoring fans. Director Jack Tamburri sets this Peer Gynt in its traditional land of Norway, but the scene draws a straight line to current American politics, our protagonist spouting phrases like, "With one boat…I built one of the largest shipping empires in the world. I don't say cartel, I don't say corporation, I say f*cking empire!"

It's an apt comparison (and simultaneously stays true to the play's original satire of Norwegian egotism) but the Trump facsimile is almost distractingly on the nose, drawing us into yet another emotional round of current-events anxiety while yanking us out of the story at hand. Instead of a wholly immersive experience, Peer's adventures (and the character developments that should accompany them) feel choppy and unclear. Instead of an imaginative roller coaster ride, the play's other-worldly elements feel tied down by consciously modern jargon. Peer's progressing age doesn't even register particularly well — Park's youthful demeanor rarely changes from scene to scene until death comes knocking on his character's door. Peer Gynt's inherent questions of identity and the fundamental purpose of a life remain compelling and ultimately do make their way to the audience. However, a little less noise, both figurative and literal, would have paved a much smoother path.