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SOA Acting Thesis Production of 'Peer Gynt' Explores 'What It Means to Be Yourself'

By Kristin Sterling

Andrei Serban (center) and the cast of Peer Gynt

What does it mean to be yourself? This is the question that plagues the protagonist in "Peer Gynt," the School of the Arts (SOA) acting students' thesis project directed by world-renowned stage director and SOA faculty member Andrei Serban. The production is currently being performed in Riverside Church (120th-121st Streets and Claremont) through Nov. 16. Tony award-nominee Elizabeth Swados has composed songs for this production to supplement the original score.

Based on Henrik Ibsen's epic poem of the same title, this new adaptation of "Peer Gynt" is the story of a young man going through his life trying to find his identity and subsequently running away from it. In doing so, his travels take him from his home to a troll kingdom, to the Orient and back again.

"The play is an existential adventure, and on the journey he, and the audience, are trying to discover what it is that makes us human beings, and what, as human beings, our responsibilities are," says Bathsheba Doran, SOA'03, the playwright who adapted Ibsen's work.

"The great thing about this play is that it shows humanity at a crossroads and is an inquiry into which way to go," says Serban. "It poses the questions: is my chosen path the right path, or will it lead nowhere; is this my true calling? It is an extraordinary piece for graduating acting students because they are also at a crossroads."

"Peer Gynt" is an unusual work for Ibsen, and is not performed often because it is a vast epic. He wrote it as a poem, in verse, to be read rather than acted on stage, says Serban. Ibsen uses free imagination and includes fictional settings that can not be replicated on stage. Given the length of the work, an uncut performance would last eight hours.

Serban challenged Doran to cut the play to under three hours, while still keeping it accessible.

A scene from Peer Gynt

"Doing this in only four months was hard, but very stimulating, and it means that you write with a slightly frenetic energy, which I found beneficial," says Doran. "Cutting is hard because Ibsen didn't write anything superfluously, so you lose something every time you take something out-and choosing what to cut is difficult."

But Serban and the 17 actors, all MFA students who will graduate in 2003, are pleased with her results.

"Bash did a very good job of providing clarity and not losing mystery," says Serban. "Often when you reduce a piece it becomes too simplistic. She managed to keep the complexities."

In addition to her studies at Columbia, Doran's professional experiences prepared her for this challenge. Last year her full-length stage play "I Kathryn" was read at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York by Olympia Dukakis and Kim Hunter and subsequently was read at the Soho Theatre in London. In March 2003, she will be participating in the Cherry Lane's mentor season. Besides writing plays, Doran has written comedy for British television and radio and done radio drama.

Downplaying the challenge of adapting the play, Doran says "Peer Gynt" presents the director (Serban) with extraordinary challenges because Ibsen describes such unusual landscapes and events, such as fights with trolls, shipwrecks and devil characters.

"Ibsen's language evokes these images very vividly in the imagination, and the challenge for the director is to create these images without curtailing the audience's imagination, and instead supporting it," says Doran. "Some people, including playwright Edward Albee, argue that all plays exist most perfectly as literature and no production can fulfill the true potential of what is on the page."

Why did Serban select such a difficult play for the thesis project?

"Like Shakespeare's plays, "Peer Gynt" is a total demand on the instrument of the actor," says Serban. "It presents a challenge for the students' bodies, voices and imagination, requiring them to transform themselves in ways out of the ordinary. I believe that an actor should be a total actor who speaks with his mind, emotions, body and instinct, using all of the energy he possesses."

Serban holds himself to this same standard. The Romanian born director is renowned in the United States and throughout Europe and has won several Obie awards and a Tony award for Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." Of all his accomplishments, "The Cherry Orchard" is among those for which he is most proud.

"It was considered a landmark production at the time because it departed from the usual way Chekhov had been played," recalls Serban. "Until then, Chekhov was treated with a sentimental and tearful approach, but he wrote a comedy about the human condition. I tried to fulfill that intention. Critics quarreled about the production for years."

Over the years Serban has worked with A.R.T., LaMama Theatre, the Public Theatre, Lincoln Center, Circle in the Square, Yale Repertory Theatre, the Guthrie Theatre, A.C.T. and the New York City, Seattle and Los Angeles operas. In Europe he has worked at the Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Zurich and Bologna Opera Houses, and the Welsh National Opera, among many others. He is currently preparing Shakespeare's "Pericles," which is very rarely done, for the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge and is preparing "Othello" by Verdi for the Paris Opera in the spring. Next year he is hopeful to have his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In addition to his professional practice, teaching is a passion of Serban's. As the director of the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theatre Studies at Columbia, he believes in a hands-on approach to learning and is known for taking an SOA work-study student with him each year when he works in Europe.

For the students involved in the "Peer Gynt" production the play itself is not the only excitment. Last month President Bollinger and SOA Dean Bruce Ferguson cut the ribbon on a new performance space for the theatre arts division, at the Theatre of the Riverside Church, a 180-seat theatre that will offer the campus and the Columbia community better access to their work.

What is most striking to Serban at the Riverside Church Theatre, compared with prior SOA venues, is that the stage has a curtain. When attending the theatre as a child he always wondered what was behind the curtain.

"When the play began, I expected the fulfillment on stage of the magic the curtain promised," Serban says. "Now that we too have a curtain, we must fulfill that expectation."

"Peer Gynt" will be performed at The Theatre at Riverside Church November 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th at 8:00 p.m.; 3:00 p.m. matinees play on November 3rd, 9th, 10th and 16th. Tickets are $10; $5 for students. For tickets, visit The Theatre at Riverside Church box office at 91 Claremont Street (between 120th and 121st Streets) or call (212) 870-6784.

Published: Nov 11, 2002
Last modified: Nov 08, 2002

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