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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Gint — EgoPo Classic Theater at Christ Church Neighborhood House

Gint -- interiorAs told by Henrik Ibsen, following Norwegian legend and drawing on his own life, Peer Gynt is a wastrel who lives in the fjords and fails to live up to the potential and expectations his deserted mother, Ase, has for him. Peer thinks of himself and his pleasure first and procrastinates when it comes to accomplishing anything of real importance.

As adapted by American playwright, Romulus Linney, in a version he calls “Gint,” Pete Gint is a right lazy and feckless varmint who lives in the Appalachians and prefers whiskey to work and women to whiskey. Like his Norwegian counterpart, he fabricates tall tales to explain his absences and ne’er-do-well ways to his mother, who slaps him for a liar then pets him as her sonny boy, and makes up for losing the willing hand of the richest man in the vicinity’s daughter by kidnapping and bedding her on her wedding night to another man.

Pete is a scoundrel who effectively, if not intentionally or self-consciously, puts himself above all others and his pleasure above any productive occupation or pastime. His behavior, and the tainted reputation that accompanies it, make him unwelcome in his neck of the woods, and give him a wont to wander and see if he can find something better and to escape the retribution of those he hurt.

“Gint,” like its Scandanavian model, becomes a picaresque about Pete’s meandering across the U.S. to find fortune and make a life he doesn’t have to work too hard to maintain. His only ties to his home are his mother, who is too amused at Pete’s rascally charm and too guilty about raising him in abject poverty to stay angry at him or chastise him with any authority, and Sally Vicks, a prim and decent newcomer to the Appalachians who, in spite of warnings that set her wise, develops an affection for Pete and vows to wait patiently for him to expunge all wildness from his system and return to her side and a stable life.

Lane Savadove’s production of “Gint” for EgoPo Classic Theater becomes a tale of two acts, the first of which benefits from EgoPo’s style of folksy creativity. It is tight, enlightening, and entertaining with music, strong characterization, and a fantastic passage involving magical hogs while depicting a real and gritty way of life.

Sadly, the second act loses it way as hopelessly as Pete does and never regains the involving combination of sweetness, roguishness, atmosphere, mystery, and texture found it the first.

The difference between the quality and intensity of the first and second acts turns EgoPo’s “Gint” from a dramatic look at a man who is both rougher and more sensitive than his surroundings to a random collection of scenes that reinforce the picture of Pete’s selfishly reckless way of living but fail to grab your attention or interest. The problem is the second act takes Pete and his audience to various settings, some exotic and unusual, but to no place that is dramatically new. Pete’s adventures outside his native mountains seem no different in theme or outcome from all we’ve already seen and don’t add to Linney’s story or give us a sense Pete is growing in maturity and understanding. Savadove’s production goes from being a well-paced, wittily told saga of an irresponsible man’s resistance to becoming an adult to being a bore you can’t wait to see end.

Savadove is not totally to blame. Linney did not give him the material or the key characters that would continue the tension and sense of boyish frolicking from the first act into a much more static and impersonal second half that lacks the dramatic personal connections and the constant idea that something of importance might be at stake in Pete’s relationship with Sally, his mother, called Oldie Mama by Linney, and even the woman he ravaged on her wedding night.  What’s missing is byplay between characters that matter and events that affect people familiar to us equally. Sally, Oldie Mama, and other characters from the Appalachians register as strongly and as moving as Pete does. They have earned our interest and affection, and Pete relates to them with some depth, some sense of kinship or loyalty. The people Pete meets on the road in the second act remain an amorphous lot who never establish genuine personalities and don’t engage us. They are expedient fixtures more than characters. Linney doesn’t even take the time to give any of them memorable names. They are faces in a landscape instead of being solid folks rooted to a landscape, and “Gint’s” second act suffers from an inability to make you care about them or Pete’s interaction with them. Even the episode with the hog people, Linney’s version of Ibsen’s mountain trolls, has more substance than Pete’s encounters with vagabonds (Ibsen’s Bedouins) and asylum inmates (a direct correspondence to Ibsen’s script) in the second act. It’s as if Linney turned from distinct well-defined drawing in the first act to random modernism in the second. A Rembrandt becomes a Pollock, and the Pollock just doesn’t work as theater.

The adult and aged Pete Gint, always taking the easy way around trouble and putting himself and his comfort above all else, seems to be going through motions while his younger self took risks, made possibilities, and threw caution, security, and respectability to the wind. Oldie Mama passes away as the first act ends. That leaves only Sally, in addition to Pete, for the audience to care about. “Gint” may have worked better as a one-act plays that skips scenes set in Hollywood and on the road and concentrates on Pete and Sally.

Alas, that isn’t the case, and we and EgoPo are left the half-this, half-that mess Linney left us. It’s a shame that a production that was so strong and entertaining at its beginning fades to non-stop tedium until two scenes before it closes. Possibly some care towards giving more individual personality to the Hollywood moguls or wayfarers could help. Or perhaps the young woman who steals all Pete’s money, a character that somewhat matches Ibsen’s Anitra,  might be able to spark some second act fire. But I think Linney’s “Gint” fizzles in midstream, and Savadove’s production diminishes along with it. Even the director’s use of an on-stage swimming pool, complete with actual water, doesn’t help.

Linney’s script follows Ibsen’s closely. He includes all of Pete’s good-for-nothing traits, and all of the trials Pete encounters as he wends his aimless way through life. We meet a lot of people or otherworldly creatures who claim to want to be Pete’s friend or salvation but who only want to maim, mar, or maneuver him. Pete’s selfishness keeps you from feeling sorry for him, but even in Linney’s rendition, you want him to escape danger and move on to his next adventure, or even to peace.

Pete doesn’t realize his salvation would have been being better to his mother, for whom he has and shows genuine affection, and to have stayed with Sally, even if doing so would have meant having to face his past, his fathering of a child with a troll princess, or have led to peril, the wrath of both the trolls and his mountain neighbors.

Pete’s road is thorny, and while he is in his home mountains that he knows as well as Maria knows her Alps in :The Sound of Music,” and near people who are as interesting to the audience as Pete is, all seems manageable. In the wide, wide world, neither Pete nor Linney can make things work. Even Ibsen had some muddy sequences in the later parts of “Peer Gynt. For EgoPo’s audience, the change in tone and quality between the first and second acts is a letdown, and that is a shame because the first act is quite good.

Savadove’s production has many merits. He fills the early part of “Gint” with music. As the audience enters the theater at Christ Church, the cast in onstage singing, dancing, and playing stringed instruments with country charm. You can see how much the actress Sarah Schol is into this kind of entertainment and how talented in the “Gint” ensemble is vocally and musicianship.

This pre-show lagniappe presages some lovely music to come. Hymns and folk tunes abound during gatherings among the neighbors of Pete’s Appalachian home. Savadove seems to provide music anywhere he can, and the singing and dancing leavens “Gint” and gives it atmosphere.

Savadove and company also do a great job with Dirk Durossette’s artistic set. The background forms a mountain setting in rough wood arranged neatly to provide a beautiful moonlit view. When Pete is in Hollywood, Savadove and Durossette have the inspiration to add the letters, “G,” “I,” “N,” “T” to the backdrop as if Pete’s name could be seen over the Los Angeles valleys in lieu of the Hollywood sign.

Durossette creatively suggests houses, campsites, beds, sleighs, trucks, and caverns  from a group of storage boxes arranged according to their need. The small swimming pool in the second act is a smart touch.

Costume designer Brian Strachan does his best with rags, homespun, shawls, and go-to-meetin’ duds. His triumph may be the metallic color Speedo he gives to Sean Lally, as Pete, in the scenes involving water.

Sound designer David Cimetta lets you hear that water dripping, gurgling, and splashing along with other sounds that add to “Gint’s” texture.

The “Gint” cast does a generally fine job of portraying multiple characters. Only Lally as Gint, Isa St. Clair as Sally, and Melanie Julian as Oldie Mama play a single role.

Sean Lally is excellent as Pete Gint. He has rogue and rapscallion printed on his expression as he makes his entrance explaining to his mother how he was away from home for weeks because a flying buck with antlers that bespoke centuries of life took him on a journey, one that prevented him from successfully fulfilling the errand on which Oldie Mama sent him.

Thin and lithe, Lally embodies the boy who can scale mountains without giving thought to the best way to negotiate them and who looks for pleasure in liquor and women. Lally gives Gint the sexiness to get the attention of women who shy away from him because of his ragged clothes and reputation as a rake but can’t help looking at him or even taunting him in obvious flirtation.

Seeing Lally’s Gint make nice to Oldie Mama, you see why this runt believes he can talk or fight his way out of any predicament. Lally gives Gint a lazy swagger that has some appeal.

The actor’s skill with lines matches his physical agility. No one could surmount the lack of intensity that mars three quarters of “Gint’s second act, but when he gets the chance to take center stage or be prominent in a scene with Oldie Mama or Sally, Lally shows a lot of range and a lot of depth.

Isa St. Clair, with her long-flowing reddish blond locks that make her look like a pre-Raphaelite subject, is genuine and dignified as Sally. She captures her character’s self-possession and confidence that allows her to approach and even reproach Gint in ways others can’t. Most girls want Pete for the sexual pleasure he will most willingly oblige them by giving. Sally sees something deeper in Pete and holds herself in such an upright manner, she makes Pete respond in kind. Sally may be the only person of Earth to whom Pete shows real respect. Even so, he keeps her waiting years until he returns to her.

Melanie Julian’s first expression as Oldie Mama makes her look like Al Capp’s Mammy Yokum on the warpath. Julian shows her skill as her anger as Pete melts sweetly and subtly into amusement and then maternal love and forgiveness.

Julian conveys the blame Oldie Mama feels for not being able to give Pete, abandoned by his father just as he abandons his son, a better, more comfortable upbringing. She plays the many moods of her character well, but none better than the satisfied grin she wears when she sees Pete as her little boy. Julian is also quite affecting during Oldie Mama’s death scene.

Griffin Stanton-Ameisen makes a mark in several parts, including as Pete’s primary hometown tormentor and as the king of the hogs who, when away from their cavern, can appear as people. It is Stanton-Ameisen’s hog king who indoctrinates Pete to think he should not only be true to himself but to love himself above all others.

Lee Minora, Ed Swidey, Sarah Schol, Johnny Smith, and Cindy Spitko  each do a fine job as members of Savadove’s troupe. Their harmonies are wonderful. They should go out on the road as a folk music act. Especially since they play instruments too.

Minora and Smith register well in  bit parts, Minora as a reluctant bride but ready adulterer, Smith as Pete’s hog child.

“Gint,” presented by EgoPo Classic Theater, runs through Sunday, May 11 at the fourth floor theater in the Christ Church Neighborhood House, N. 2nd and Church Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $20 and can be ordered by calling 267-273-1414 or going online to www.egopo.org.

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