Henrik Ibsen vs. Harley-Davidson

Photo by Keith Ian PolokoffMaybe he dreamed about bodacious belly-baring babes—those Norwegian winters are mighty long and lonely—but Henrik Ibsen probably never imagined a groin-grinding king on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle when he wrote Peer Gynt in 1867. But Howard Burman's adaptation of the poetic drama—simply called Peer—jazzes up Ibsen's lyrical style with leather jackets, a Greek chorus, biker babes and a shiny hog. In theory, it sounds way bitchen. But in practice? Well, let's just say we love that Harley—and leave it at that.

See, this new-if-not-so-improved production of Peer at Cal State Long Beach's Studio Theatre isn't a bad adaptation of a masterpiece of modern literature—at least not for the MTV crowd. But those who yearn for substance more substantial than a little flashy crotch-grabbing might be disappointed. Burman's 90-minute reinterpretation is a rock & roll take on sexual exploits and opportunistic misdeeds, yet the driving forces of character development and motivation are on vacation.

The imaginative script has moments of crass lucidity, but some of the references, which range from Brigitte Bardot to Jay Leno, seem gimmicky and distract from the moral center: after a brief prologue, Peer (Joel Keeler) blathers about a fantastic bike that once belonged to Elvis Presley, now owned by a friend of a friend of a friend's friend. But there's no trace of the motivating factors Ibsen explores in his first scene of Peer Gynt, which lay the foundation for all that transpiresPeer's complicated relationship with his mother and his family's history of fallen fortunes. And, well, we don't know—we always thought that stuff was kind of important.

Of course, the biker shtick doesn't always backfire. Like the original, Burman's Peer is an aimless irresponsible hedonist who takes on legendary stature as his quest for genuine freedom takes him across the globe—certainly you can see the same similarities to Easy Rider we can, right? And as in Ibsen's five-act dramatic poem, Peer crashes a local wedding, meets his ideal woman, Solveig (Katrina Cameron), and claims the bride, Ingrid (Erin Young), for himself. Here, for instance, the motorcycle metaphors kick into high gear: Burman's leather-clad Ingrid has a sexual toughness that dilutes the horror of her kidnap/rape, and when she tosses her unruly mane of blond hair and clambers onto the back of that Harley, she's clearly out for adventure.

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The rest of the play is a rollicking riff on Ibsen's original road trip. The troll king is transformed by Burman into a drug dealer (Walter Pena); ever the opportunist, Peer steals the dealer's drugs to fund his way to wealth and status. (In Ibsen's original, Peer's path to luxury was as a religious prophet in North Africa, but hey, close enough). And Peer still gets taken by the alluring Anitra (Jessica Petersen), but the seduction becomes a groin-grinding moment on the Harley, the Greek chorus dividing into male and female voices that rhythmically rise and fall to an orgasmic climax.

So Burman's souped-up Peer shares a thematic connection with Ibsen's original, primarily in Peer's quest for freedom: he hungers for liberation but winds up using the search as an excuse to run away from any kind of responsibility. But the lack of a strong emotional core causes some parts of the play to stall mid-route. Besides the truncation of the mother-son relationship, Solveig is an afterthought in Burman's adaptation—simplified into a teenager who pines away into old age over a brash onetime dance partner, instead of a long-suffering domestic partner deserted when Peer must flee his Trollish progeny.

Maybe because of the source material, there's just enough in Peerto make this more than just another MTV moment of flash and posing. But, like MTV, it's all about the base superficiality—hello, Real World!—and the complexity of human life, which Ibsen spent so much of his life exploring in some of the most dramatically compelling terms ever, is reduced to little more than some pop-culture references and a big fat Harley.

Peer at Cal state Long Beach's Studio Theatre, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-7000. Thurs., March 21, 6 p.m.; Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. $15.

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