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Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s ‘Peer Gynt’ a rare treat

Paul Alan Dixon (troll) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company's "Peer Gynt" (Photo by James Tweet)

Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt” is a rare and heady concoction, equal parts morality tale, travel adventure, romance, Norwegian troll fantasy and critique of capitalism—all in verse. As the theatrical Norwegian Ibsen Company puts it, the play’s “40 scenes move uninhibitedly in time and space, and between consciousness and the unconscious.”

So it’s quite an ambitious feat for the Long Beach Shakespeare Company (LBSC) to successfully pull off the production in its intimate Helen Borgers Theatre, which it does with seven very talented cast members and equally creative crew.

Director Holly Leveque employs video projection to expand the stage at times, and directs the actors in well-paced, humorously engaging performances, with assistance by movement director Marcus Violette and poetry consultant Brian Sonia-Wallace. Lighting by Connie-Lynne Villani creates mood and separates the play’s numerous episodic scenes.

Center: Luke Medina (Peer Gynt) with Phoebe Balson, Paul Alan Dixon and Sarah Hoeven as trolls in Long Beach Shakespeare Company's "Peer Gynt" (Photo by James Tweet)

Designer Tim Leach’s large-headed, bug-eyed troll costumes become mesmerizing when embodied by cast members echoing the words of their video-projected Troll King (Artistic Director Brando Cutts, pre-recorded). And Violette as “The Boyg,” a creepy disembodied voice that psychologically torments our hero in one scene, adds menace. Violette also plays a ghoulish pre-recorded “Brat,” the mongrel child of Peer Gynt and a troll princess.

As the hero—or anti-hero—Luke Medina makes an excellent Peer Gynt, an imaginative scoundrel who leaves his Norwegian home to journey across oceans and deserts, returning to his abandoned forest dwelling once again as an old man, making deals with God and the devil right to the end.

Luke Medina (Peer Gynt) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company's "Peer Gynt" (Photo by James Tweet)

Medina—founding member of LA-based theatre company The Attic Collective—captures Peer’s youthful arrogance through buoyant delivery and expressions, making his childish selfishness likable. Except perhaps for the casual womanizing, Peer is fun to watch, and even admire, as he negotiates with nearly everyone: his mother, the Troll King, a club of rich European colonizers and even a mysterious “Button Molder” who comes for his soul.

The other actors—including LBSC veterans Rachel Speth and the inimitable Sarah Hoeven— bring equal enthusiasm in carrying off this wide-ranging story. Hoeven is hysterical as Peer’s mother Ase, who animatedly laments her impoverished widowhood and Peer’s frequent roamings even as she so easily buys into his tall tales.

Sarah Hoeven (Ase Gynt) and Luke Medina (Peer Gynt) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company's "Peer Gynt" (Photo by James Tweet)

Speth carries her many roles with conviction, including the troll princess, who becomes an old woman haunting Peer’s unlikely romance with the chaste and constant Solveig (Phoebe Balson) after Peer’s rejection of the troll’s Brat. For reasons of her own, Solveig decides to live with Peer in his forest shack, waiting patiently—for decades!—until he returns home. We hear the purity of her belief in him through Balson’s sweet singing voice.

Paul Alan Dixon capably rounds out the cast as various male characters, including the Button Molder tasked with melting down Peer’s soul in a silver ladle, but not before giving him yet another chance, swayed by Peer's gumption and pleading arguments.

Through all his adventures, Peer’s intrepidness is matched only by his sheer luck, making him enviable. We find him intriguing and even root for him at times, despite his questionable behavior. He is us if we never grew up—a Peter Pan living out his surreal and aggrandizing fantasies just “being myself,” as he says. LBSC’s similarly plucky and creative cast and crew carry us with him on this magic carpet ride of a production.

Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s “Peer Gynt” continues at the Helen Borgers Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, through June 18, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $23 general, $13 for students. For tickets and information call (562) 997-1494 or visit Run time is 3 hours. Masks optional.


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