Henrik Ibsen's bearded Victorian face is projected on a screen--wearing the oval glasses that Oliver Peoples would later make de rigueur for the chic intellectual. He appears to watch as five actors tiptoe on stage, frequently startled by the sudden drama in the famous Grieg music.
It's hard to imagine that this severe Norwegian could have, in 1867, written anything as wild and funny as the "Peer Gynt" that director David Schweizer has put onstage at the Actors' Gang. But Ibsen did in fact describe his verse play as "reckless and formless--written without any thought for the consequences."
On first glance this "Peer" may appear both reckless and formless. A cast of more than 30 characters (which includes a fantastic assortment of weird trolls, disco dancers and cuckolds) is played by five manic actors who appear to have forgotten to take their lithium . . . for the last five years.
This "Peer" is a raging, raunchy burlesque, one that warmly embraces all manner of bathroom and sex jokes. But there is method to this madness. In a play about a poseur's search for identity, Schweizer has created a production that is pure id on parade.
An ignorant mountain boy, Peer ends up adventuring around the globe, seducing, pretending and getting duped, believing himself the Emperor of the World. Yet, when he unwraps the skin of an onion and finds no kernel underneath the layers, he has a strange sense that he is rather like that onion.
Using a concept that he first developed at the Studio Theater in Warsaw, Schweizer seizes the many problems in this hard-to-produce play and laughs at them, hysterically. When Peer runs off with the Troll Princess (an otherworldly Clare Wren), the stage directions call for a giant pig to whisk the couple away. In this version, a tiny ceramic sow carrying two nutty-looking dolls can be seen briefly crossing the top of the stage via a piece of string.
The role of Peer is passed among three actors like a baton in a relay. Jason Reed is the insincere, snide Peer; Ned Bellamy a kinder, gentler Peer; and the amazing Jack Black is pure Peer energy with no thought or conscience. (The cast will change after April 1.)
With its kaleidoscope of bizarre characters, "Peer" provides room for actors to go nuts, to enter those exercises where they act like children and exit through the other side, to unadulterated comic energy, astonishingly infantile but freeing. In this department, the piece de resistance is a three-headed Troll King, featuring Bellamy as the spokesperson with Black and the wonderful Molly Bryant as his runny nosed, flatulent cohorts, who offer a steady and often incoherent stream of commentary.
Even if you can't always hear the words, Schweizer is obviously offering a serious examination of the text, a play that George Bernard Shaw called "one of the world's very choicest treasures of its kind." The Troll King tells Peer the difference between trolls and humans: Humans own themselves. Peer knows himself just enough to know he doesn't, and this knowledge haunts him.
He's still trying to figure himself out when confronted with death, depicted here as a spotlight operator who threatens to melt Peer with his beam. In one of his many transformations, Black plays the Peer who faces death with an unnaturally deep, uninflected voice, like Harvey Fierstein in a dry mood. Touchingly, Peer will even ask death to tell him what it means to be himself.
Aside from the spotlight operator, theater references abound in Schweizer's loose, theatrically savvy adaptation. The actors run into trouble trying to sustain a manic comic energy into the long second act. This "Peer" might be brilliant if it were 40 minutes shorter, but by then too many layers of the onion might have to be stripped away. As it stands, this production will many times beg your indulgence. Mostly, though, Schweizer's "Peer" won't bother to beg but will just steal it and run off with it, possibly on a ceramic pig.
* "Peer Gynt," the Actors' Gang, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Thursday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends April 8. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
With: Ned Bellamy, Jack Black, Molly Bryant, Jason Reed, Clare Wren.
(After April 1: Lee Arenberg, Brian Brophy, Susan Heimbinder, Dean Robinson, Patti Tippo.)
An Actors' Gang production. By Henrik Ibsen. Adapted and directed by David Schweizer. Sets by Richard Hoover. Costumes by Gregory Poe. Lights by Rand Ryan. Sound by Elliott Siegel. Composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek.