Dan Waller and Kate Eastwood Norris in Gnit. Photo by Kathy R. Preher.
By Will Eno
Directed by Les Waters
Review by Keith Waits
Copyright 2013 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Gnit is explicitly a modern, absurdist update of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, but it also reminded me of Candide, and perhaps Will Eno is touching on the entire history of literary characters embarked on a wandering odyssey in search of self. It is a funny and hugely enjoyable comedy that will still leave some audience members scratching their heads.
The opening scene between Peter Gnit (Dan Waller) and his ailing mother (Linda Kimbrough) establishes a unique tone and singular rhythms in the dialogue that is sharp in its observations yet so quirky and offbeat as to distance the audience somewhat from the action onstage. Peter’s episodic journey through life, as in Ibsen, is filled with curious and unfortunate choices that render the character so firmly eccentric that the audience can rarely identify with him. He steals a bride, marries and then abandons another woman, Solvay (Hannah Bos), is robbed and briefly institutionalized, experiencing such travails with a profoundly disaffected attitude that can, one suppose, be accepted as an uncorrupted innocence.
Along the way, he encounters a host of other quirkily funny people who do make connections with the audience in small yet important ways. Particularly good effect is derived from a character named “Town,” and as played by the dexterous Danny Wolohan, the device of one actor speaking as if 2, 3, or, if my ears did not deceive me, 4 people was an inventive idea that was just one of the ways that the viewer is kept slightly off-balance. The role’s name is a good indicator of what is happening, yet the impact is as if we are witnessing an escaped mental patient greet the protagonist instead of the nod to Ibsen’s extensive roster of characters.
Peter’s Mother is played by Linda Kimbrough with a tart and quick wit, and one could sense the audience warming to her more than her remote son, yet Kate Eastwood Norris’s work in the utility position of Stranger 2 was also a supple and winning tour de force of comic genius. The range of personages she embodies is considerable, but her talents are more than up to the task. Kris King’s fine work as Stranger 1 notwithstanding, Ms. Norris, in her second Humana appearance, stole almost every scene she was in. Hannah Bos was an appealing Solvay, among a few other parts, although the role did not give her the same showcase as her work in last year’s The Ver**on Play. As Peter, Dan Waller brought an intelligent yet wistful reading to the somewhat vacuous protagonist. This is a role that, if executed correctly, is thankless in that very few will appreciate the delicacy of the actor’s work, in no small part because he is easily overshadowed by the more obvious physical and verbal humor of the other characters. Peter is by definition a less-defined character; something more of an enigmatic guide into the narrative that, while less picaresque than its inspiration, is still filled with plenty of incident and changing locale.
The scenic design by Antje Ellerman is a clever mix of boxy set pieces and projections that anchor the material in its Scandinavian origins, while Connie Furr-Soloman’s costumes reinforced the concept while interjecting helpful details for character.
Intermission chatter revealed more than a few patrons found the first act off-putting, despite the easy yet smart humor. Faith was restored as the second act delivers enough narrative satisfaction to help assuage such fears. Still, it is interesting to note that the Beckett-like qualities of the play could still puzzle people who were just moments before laughing without abandon. As absurdist theatre goes, Gnit might be one of the most accessible pieces you are likely to come across; enjoyable enough if you can only be patient and realize that Mr. Eno is not worried about serving up a warm and fuzzy hero for the audience to cozy up to. If that were to be his mission, he would have chosen a different inspiration. This sort of rich and challenging writing is what the Humana Festival has always been about, and Louisville audiences are overdue for an introduction to one of the more important contemporary playwrights in American theatre.
Part of the 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner