Billed as a willfully unfaithful adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic picaresque tale “Peer Gynt,” Will Eno’s “Gnit” up-ends the classic man’s-search-for-meaning quest with an ambitiously absurdist self-discovery journey that stubbornly chafes against the conventions of the genre.
“Gnit” is the fourth play to open in the 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Eno, whose “Thom Paine (based on nothing)” was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, is an exciting, innovative writer whose singular sensibility is a welcome addition to what is, so far, a fairly realistic slate of new plays (variety is the spice of Humana, after all). “Gnit” opened Sunday in the Pamela Brown Auditorium, where it runs through April 7.
“Gnit” is wickedly funny, relentlessly intelligent and very well-executed by director (and artistic director) Les Waters, the cast and the design team. It’s also tough to love.
Eno pulls directly from Ibsen’s text in some cases – Peter Gnit (Dan Waller) steals a bride on her wedding day and ends up banished from his town – and liberally in others, like re-casting mountain trolls as torture-film real estate agents. He neglects, and ultimately abandons, his dying, skeptical mother (Linda Kimbrough) in favor of his own pursuits. After banishment, Peter romps through his life on a single-minded search for his “authentic self,” hooking up with various women in the first act and making and losing fortunes in the second, engaging in no useful self-examination until the very end, when the point about forming meaningful relationships and not being a big selfish idiot is presented not as a personal lesson but larger, pointing outward rather than in.
And so the script stubbornly resists giving the audience much to hope for in Peter’s search. He falls in love with earnest Solvay (Hannah Bos), but he’s ill-equipped to think of anything except his own fears and desires, so their relationship is rocky from the start. Eno dangles moments of growth and beauty in front of us (the promise of a life of love with Solvay, the possibility of redemption with his treatment of his mother, a moving monologue at the end of the first act) and snatches them away in the next scene. It’s masterful and infuriating.
It’s fun that Peter’s impulsive, selfish, and not very bright – who isn’t at some point? Literature has a long tradition of the endearing scoundrel. But as characters go, Peter isn’t particularly charming, though Eno does give Waller some hilarious lines (“That cloud looks like a cloud. That cloud looks like me!”). Peter’s awful manners are predictable after the first scene, and Waller plays him with a vacant affect that’s funny and finely-tuned, but ultimately difficult to connect with. We’re asked to engage with the journey of a character who resists engaging, and that’s going to be a tough sell for some audiences, no matter how witty the material, especially through the sexual hit-and-run repetition that drags the pace of the first act. The play does pick up in the second act after Peter leaves the mountains, gaining a wider variety of strange experiences that help give the narrative more momentum.
Good thing Eno is a legitimate comedy danger, master of the threatening non-sequitur and absurd comeback (“What part of every word that I know do you not understand?”). His inspired use of a single character to represent groups, known as Town (Danny Wolohan), consistently fires on all cylinders, with Wolohan simultaneously voicing groups as small as four and up to an angry mob. Waters’ cast is top-notch, with Kimbrough standing out as the cantankerous elderly woman with impeccable comedic timing, and the supporting Strangers 1 and 2 (Kate Eastwood Norris and Kris Kling) are as versatile as sketch comedy veterans.
Antje Ellermann’s clever blonde wood set evokes a Scandinavian fairy tale mood without wandering into twee territory. Connie Furr-Soloman’s costumes are subtle but magical – Peter’s slow but subtle aging shows in his clothes, for example, his color scheme changing practically right before our eyes. Sound designer Bray Poor punctuates scenes with music that, like the play, resists convention – tinny traditional folk from gramophones in one scene, a blast of Neutral Milk Hotel in another – and lighting designer Matt Frey’s use of shadow on stage lends the production a subtly mythic tone.
Ultimately, “Gnit” raises questions that are central to our self-actualizing, pursuit-of-happiness times that I hope will also be in conversation with Mallery Avidon’s “O Guru Guru Guru (or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you),” which opens Friday. Is it so hard to just try to be good and love one another? What if the “self” isn’t something you can discover or lose with enough effort? That could be terrifying to a culture of strivers, but it’s a fear worth facing.