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New Muses Theatre does Peer Gynt

Ambitious production is split into two parts

From left: Alex Gust, Eric Cuestas-Thompson, Niclas Olson, Emily Lott Robinson, Austin Matteson, Melanie Shaffer and Katelyn Hoffman. Photo courtesy New Muses Theatre Company

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Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt is a monumentally ambitious play for a community theater to produce. The original was done completely in verse and was performed in five acts with more than 40 scenes in different locations and times, and it alternated between realism and fantasy.

New Muses Theatre Company's version, adapted by Niclas Olson, is much simpler and no longer in verse (although I caught a few random rhymes). Rather than five acts, it is being done as two, two-act plays performed on a rotating schedule. Olson says that although each part can stand alone as a complete play, seeing parts one and two in order is recommended. This review is based on Part One.

Peer Gynt is based on a Norwegian fairy tale Ibsen believed to be based on fact. Part One: Youth begins with Gynt's mother (Emily Lott Robinson) berating her son for being a lazy vagabond who will never amount to anything. Gynt (Olson), known as a brawler and the laughing stock in his Norwegian mountain village, tells his mother about his exciting adventure fighting a deer in the mountains, a tale she eventually recognizes as a fantasy based on an old fairy tale she heard as a child. Peer goes to a wedding and steals away the bride and runs off to the mountains for adventures with trolls, battles with a monster known as the Boyg, marries the troll king's daughter and then deserts her after she becomes pregnant, and then he romances Solveig (Katelyn Hoffman), a new woman in the village who fancies him a romantic outlaw and follows him into the mountains.

Throughout a series of 16 short scenes, we follow Peer Gynt's sometimes real and sometimes imaginary adventures, which are variously touching, realistic, highly dramatic, comical and surrealistic - an incredible challenge to any actor and any theater company, which Olson and company handle with seeming ease.

The story is not easy to follow. Close attention is demanded as scenes quickly change from real to surreal.

The acting throughout is commendable, as most of the casts take on divergent roles. Hoffman plays the sweet and tender Solveig as the most believable and least outrageous character in the play. Melanie Schaffer is outstanding and in parts almost gleefully evil as The Woman in Green and other parts. Olson's histrionics as the overly dramatic Peer Gynt are a joy to watch as he switches lightning-fast from absurdly comical to intensely dramatic. This is a tour de force for Olson, who wrote the adaptation, designed the simple but effective set, directed and starred as the leading character.

Part Two: Revenant tells the tale of Peer Gynt's later adventures as a world traveler beginning 25 years after Part One, and then in the second act Gynt is an old man 20 years further on. Please visit the New Muses website to see when each part plays.

Peer Gynt, 8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m., Sunday, through May 21, $10-$15, Dukesbay Theater in the Merlino Arts Center, 508 S. Sixth Ave. #10, Tacoma, 253.254.5530, newmuses.com

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