A man with a plan... every time: 'Peer Gynt' on the Northwest verge

ACT Theatre's barnburner season-opener "Alki" is both a boisterous rollick and a mythic tale of redemption that bears its charming but irresponsible protagonist Peer Gynt on precarious travels from the Pacific Northwest to South America.

Although "Alki" is playwright Eric Overmyer's vision of Henrik Ibsen's 1867 magnum opus "Peer Gynt," it is as much an inspired riff as an adaptation. Overmyer's work will be familiar to theater habitués. The playwright grew up in Seattle, and several of his plays were produced here, including "On the Verge" and "Dark Rapture" at Empty Space. He also has taken his work to the more lucrative world of television shows, "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and "Law & Order" among them.

"Peer Gynt" is one of Ibsen's early plays, which were riotous, epic, mystical and revolved around a rebel seeking an ultimate truth beyond his grasp. Overmyer's remix retains all of these rudiments and doesn't shy away from the multiple flaws Ibsen lavished on one of drama's first anti-heroes.

Instead, Overmyer reworks the language and references in the play to switch the script's locale from Norway, Morocco and the Middle East to the Pacific Northwest and South America, beginning with the 1850s rather than the early 1800s. Overmyer's dialogue takes on the rhythms and colorful vernacular of the West's pioneer past - "trolls" are now "haints," and Peer Gynt's incessant "lies" are "whoppers" and "tall tales." References are changed: the mountain that Peer describes in his fabrication of the deer that got away becomes Tahoma rather than Gendin, and the steed that the haint princess rides is a horse-sized raccoon rather than a pig.

Overmyer has also expanded some scenes and characters and condensed or nixed others. The disappearance that gave me pause was the scene in Ibsen's script in which Peer's mother dies. I missed it simply because, early on in the play, it shows Peer's strong love for his mother, making him a more sympathetic character.

The absence of that scene doesn't impede the ever-appealing and talented R. Hamilton Wright from roping us into liking the dishonest and thoughtless young Peer in ACT's world-première production. In Wright's congenial, high-spirited Peer, we affectionately recall our own overly optimistic teenage dreams of becoming rich and famous, allowing us to absolve Peer of most of his youthful fibs and fiascos, including the consequences he fails to consider. When one of Peer's prevarications comes true, landing him in the halls of the King of the Haints and desperately angling to escape, we're afraid for him even while he's greedily agreeing to the king's requirements so he can become next in line for the throne.

The traits that are amusing in the young Peer lose their charm as he ages into a calculatingly self-serving opportunist who eschews love and empathy to accumulate wealth, only to have it stolen, squandered or plunged to the bottom of the sea. Still, there are abundant laughs throughout the play, albeit shadowed by a dark ache of pity whenever Peer misguidedly sidesteps yet another chance for love and redemption.

Under Kurt Beattie's astute direction, a sterling cast of 12 actors ably portrays 49 different supporting characters. Among the most notable performances, Mary Jane Gibson is heartbreaking as the faithful Sally, who loves Peer and waits for him through all the years he is away on his adventures. In the role of Ingrid, the rich farmer's daughter Peer runs off with and disgraces on the day she is to be married, Julie Briskman is suitably pouty and manipulative. Suzanne Bouchard's haint princess is eerily bewitching, except for her intentionally ludicrous singing, which gives explicit meaning to the term "caterwauling." Michael Winters is frightfully funny as the King of the Haints, bent on converting Peer into a haint so the king's daughter can marry him, even if it means cutting out one of Peer's all-too-human eyes. Jonah Von Spreecken is obnoxious as the angry, physically twisted son of Peer and the haint princess. As a doctor in a madhouse who isn't all he seems, David Pichette is alternately unnerving and childishly enthusiastic.

Projections, created by Scott Weldin and Martin Christoffel, of scenes from Seattle's past artfully establish the period, location and context of the play. Weldin's sets do likewise, particularly two stair-stepped constructs of aged planks, bedecked with blankets, baskets and paraphernalia that imply the interior of a cabin and topped with trees to serve as hills. Deb Trout's costumes complete the picture.

Geoff Korf's lighting is subtly Freudian, shifting from cooler tones representing Peer's poverty in Act I, to warmer hues suggesting luxurious ease as Act II opens with an affluent Peer in a well-tailored suit presenting his plan for acquiring diamonds to a group of rich men. In one breathtaking moment, Korf's lighting spotlights Sally through a projection of forest on a scrim, punctuating her solitariness as Peer leaves her to evade the haint princess and chase the almighty dollar.

Wisely, Beattie has chosen to play up the script's fantastical elements with occasional props that don't bother to look realistic. A boat carrying Peer's enemies that sinks in answer to his prayer is a cartoonish two-dimensional cutout, and the giant raccoon that carries Peer and the haint princess to her father's castle is pulled by a stagehand with what looks like the handle to a child's wagon.

Just as sagely, Beattie and his cast haven't permitted the production's fantasy and humor to eclipse the play's heart of darkness, introduced in Ibsen's script and staunchly kept alive by Overmyer: how the quest for fame and fortune can divide a person from love and spiritual growth.

Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the Seattle area and is the former editor of the News.[[In-content Ad]]