First Nighter: John Doyle's Stripped Down 'Peer Gynt,' Cirque du Soleil's Broadwayed Up 'Paramour'

Henrik Ibsen is often considered the father of realism, but the citation is, more likely than not, a result of plays written later in a career that began in1850. It was Ghosts (1879) and A Doll's House (1881), that we think of as having conferred the realist title on him.

Until then, just about the only plays of his 26 that are remembered are Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867), both of which concern a man searching for himself and are in some ways similar. But whereas the former can surely be considered an early example of Ibsen's realistic bent, the latter--now the subject of a Classic Stage Company revival--cannot.

If anything, Peer Gynt is written in the abstract. It's adamantly allegorical, laden with poetic intensity. It's virtually surreal as it follows the title character on his journey to behave like himself in the company of any number of people he encounters along the way, perhaps the most prominent being his mother and Solveig, a young woman who would like to devote herself to him.

There's much to say about the challenge a director faces when taking on Peer Gynt, which Ibsen penned as a five-act verse play. It's just about diametrically opposed to the relative simplicity a director confronts when grappling with, say, An Enemy of the People or The Master Builder, where the most difficult problem is that a century-plus years on the plays can impress some viewers as dated.

But in-depth analysis of Peer Gynt's pluses and minuses aren't really called for in a response to what John Doyle, billed as the director and adaptor of this Peer Gynt, has done. To begin, Doyle appears to have decided that five acts is unnecessarily long for today's audiences. Therefore, he's reduced the work to 150 or so intermissionless minutes.

Some observers may decide he's also reduced it to gibberish. That's certainly the impression a tolerant, even polite patron might get as this Peer Gynt (Gabriel Ebert) leaves his domineering Mother (Becky Ann Baker) behind for some time spent with Solveig (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) but not as a bride. That would be The Bride (Jane Pfitsch), whose father, The Doctor (Dylan Baker) talks about his stance as a troll. (Trolls are an omnipresent subject in Norwegian culture.)

There's really no reason to list Peer Gynt's other exploits as he proceeds through Doyle's distilled version of the convoluted plot, but it's important to note that Ibsen's figure is a young man of some callow grandiosity trying to find his way. Doyle, however, sees Peer more as an eccentric attempting to find his balance, and that's the way Ebert presents him--he practically plays him as someone with Tourette Syndrome.

All cast members--the others are Adam Heller as The Undertaker and George Abud as Bridegroom--go along with the script and direction as best they can (what's their alternative?), joining Ebert on the raised rectangular playing area set designer David L. Arsenault has covered with burlap or something like it. Through the action various things are tossed on the floor--pebbles, buttons, fake money, onion peelings--and eventually swept up by Undertaker Heller.

During his travels and travails, Peer mentions becoming Emperor as an ambition. Just say that if this emperor has any clothes, they're skimpy and tattered.
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With Paramour, Cirque du Soleil comes to Broadway. Not victoriously. The unappealing suggestion is that, contemplating the auspicious venue shift to the Lyric, creative guide/creative director Jean-Francois Bouchard and director Philippe Decouflé concluded they couldn't just put their usual array of gymnasts on display within a flimsy script. That wouldn't do. They apparently concluded they had to offer a more fully developed musical.

So they ransacked tuners of the past and carpentered a story with elements picked from sources as disparate as Oklahoma! and Phantom of the Opera. They also rummaged through old movies (Busby Berkeley's canon is riffled) for a crazy quilt that tells the story of singer Indigo (Ruby Lewis), who's discovered in a speakeasy by Hollywood director AJ Golden (Jeremy Kushnier).

Promising to make her a star, which he does in a film where she seemingly plays every legendary woman who ever lived, AJ claims her as his property. She must end the relationship with pianist boyfriend/songwriter Joey (Ryan Vona).

As the dime-store scenario unfurls, Lewis, Kushnier and Vona, all displaying impressive pipes, sing original songs attributed to composers Bob & Bill, Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard (or are Bob & Bill the names by which Dubuc and Lessard are known to friends?) and lyricist-co-composer Andreas Carlsson.

The songs range from poor to poorer and require no further comment--although an auditor might wonder why a 1920s speakeasy singer would be warbling about Technicolor when Technicolor wasn't introduced to the movie-going public until 1935. For that matter, why would a Hollywood director in presumably the silent era be scouting a singer to birth as a star? (Maybe it's 1927, and The Jazz Singer has just struck box-office gold.)

That raises a further question, one that if the creators raised to each other was quickly judged immaterial where contemporary audiences are concerned. AJ may meet Indigo in a speakeasy, but at any given moment the ensemble, dressed by Philippe Guillotel and choreographed by Daphné Mauger, looks to be populating not only the '20s but also the '30s, '40s and/or '50s.

There's no logic to it. What's logical about this Cirque du Soleil enterprise is that the best elements are the circus acts. To accommodate the piddling triangular tale--"Love Triangle" is one of the songs included--many fewer gymnasts get their turn under the Howard Binkley-Patrice Besombes lights.

When they do, they wow the audience. The proof is in the applause generated when they've finished their turns. The standouts are blond brothers Kevin and Andrew Atherton, who call themselves aerial strap artists. They're hauled up and swung into the spacious Lyric auditorium to entangle and disentangle their limbs on the fly. (Incidentally, the brothers have been with Cirque du Soleil for 16 years. So they're not exactly new to fans.)

Among the other three-ring-like turns, there's an athletic ballet something like Laurey's dream from Oklahoma! wherein doubles for AJ and Joey vie over a double for Indigo. As the penultimate and extended stunt, other doubles for the lovers perform in a chase involving trampolines and endless dexterity. The sequence goes some distance towards redeeming Paramour, but hardly enough of the way.