Peeling The Onion

John Emigh and Peer Gynt

by by Aaron Cutler

For more than 20 years, Professor John Emigh tried to direct Peer Gynt at Brown, but the Sock & Buskin board wouldn't bite. Students and faculty, actors and designers were scared by its size. With its exotic locales, six-hour running time and ideal cast of 60, Gynt seemed made more for the mind than for the stage. But he kept pushing and, last year, after more than 50 Brown productions, Emigh finally got his wish. He made a brief speech, and the show was his, slated to run March 6-16, 2008.

But the problem remained: how do you stage a play too large to perform? And how do you do so in a small community?

Man and man
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, who would 14 years later write the naturalistic A Doll's House, penned Gynt in 1867 without any intent of its being performed. It shows, in rhyming verse, the titular hero leaving home to travel the world. He meets madmen, traders and trolls (Grieg wrote In the Hall of the Mountain King to underscore them), romances beautiful women and finally returns--perhaps--to a sweet girl back home. He's a historian in Egypt, a slave trader in China and a religious charlatan in Arabia, all in search of self-fulfillment and gold--and the two aren't always separate. "The Gyntian self is a teeming flood / Of needs, ideas and wants," he says, and acts accordingly. His self-reflective selfishness is in tune with modern culture. Peer says of himself, "How much more contemporary can you be?"

Gynt's been staged often. Emigh first saw it in 1963 as an Amherst junior visiting Smith College. He left underwhelmed by the production, but thought he had seen an extraordinary play. He says, "I remember loving the imagination and the sweep of it... There are so many plays that you walk out of feeling deeper, but not larger. This is a play that expands your sense of the world."

Emigh liked impossible theatre--not just Ibsen, but Beckett and Brecht. He began college as an English major, fell into acting and took time off to travel in Morocco and Spain, where he translated a Lorca play. While abroad, he played saxophone in a Jewish twist band to support himself and lived next to an open market in Marrakesh. Each day he crossed the square, saw trained bears and storytellers and learned that theatre was more than metered poetry. By the time he returned to Amherst and saw Gynt at Smith, he had learned how wild it could be. The square had a richness, he says, that he's been trying to capture since.

Act without script
Emigh came to Brown in 1967, after an MFA at Tulane and an off-Broadway run of his Amherst production of Waiting for Godot. Like Peer, though, he grew restless in one place, and in 1974 he traveled again. He went to Bali, where he learned about masks from the famed I Nyoman Kakul. Kakul was the greatest masked performance artist of his generation; Emigh couldn't even afford a hotel room. Kakul took him in and gave him lessons. Emigh says, "It's a little like going to England and having someone tell you, 'I'm sorry, you have to live with Laurence Olivier for a year.'"
Kakul was that good. In contrast to most Western actors, who followed the same script each night, his performances were improvised. He created characters by examining their masks; character then dictated action, not vice versa. Years later, Emigh learned that Kakul had been praying for someone to chronicle him. Emigh did, both through scholarship--his book Masked Performance is key to Western theatrical studies--and through performance.

Emigh has performed mask shows in New England and in more distant places like Indonesia and Japan. He could have done more professionally but was happy at Brown, where he saw an eagerness in student actors he hadn't seen in professionals. With 40 years of teaching at Brown under his belt, Emigh is one of the University's longest-serving members.

He's given performances at Brown as well. In one, he waddled into Sayles Hall in bare feet, bent over and wearing an old woman's wrinkled face. He spoke quickly in a high, shrill voice as he told a fable about an island that included Roe v. Wade jokes. Afterwards, he became a mustachioed tourist and asked people how they'd liked the show.

The new tenants
Students like Emigh, and he likes them. He treats them with the respect he learned in Morocco, where a telegraph operator once loaned him five dollars and trusted him to mail it back. But although he won't say so, he's faced a conflict: by staying at Brown, he's had to bring big dreams onto a small stage. This is evident in the shows he's directed recently--in the past five years he's mounted a Shakespeare play, a Greek tragedy and a musical. They couldn't be as strong as many professional productions--that would have taken more time and money--but Emigh has shot for greatness, and Brown theatre's been richer for it. Gynt is larger, though, than all of these shows, and staging it has required even more effort.

He held auditions in December. He'd cut Gynt down to three hours, but his adaptation still called for 85 roles. Emigh's a teacher as much as an artist, and he wanted to give his cast as much to do as possible. He asked student auditioners to play rock stars, sexy trolls and old sexy trolls, start off as babies at one end of the room and crawl towards death at the other.
He faced a challenge in casting Peer. He had two choices: He could find a virtuoso to play Peer all the way through. Or he could take a cue from a scene late in the play, in which Peer peels an onion and compares his many selves to each layer--there goes the shipwreck survivor, the gold-digger, the prophet. He says, "An awful lot of layers! More and more! / Come on! When do I reach the inner core?"

He cast eight actors and an actress to play Peer, plus five others for major roles like Peer's mother and his eternal love, Solveig. Each person was to play at least four parts, some as many as 10. Peer would be the one in each scene wearing white. The cast varies widely in age and experience--seniors Doug Benedicto, Rachel Caris and Patrick Harrison had 30 Brown shows between them; freshman Teng Yang was on his second--but Emigh tried to give everyone an equal-sized part.

The master builder

There are no contracts in college theatre; actors work for free and balance their lives around a show. Professionals rehearse for eight hours daily--Emigh had three and a half hours a night. He dove into rehearsals, delaying even introductions until day three. He had 14 actors, 36 scenes, 70 kinds of props and less than two months.

The first thing he had to do was make the cast feel safe. The enormous set, filled with poles, stairs and ladders, was meant by Emigh and set designer Michael McGarty to suggest a journey, even including a wooden boat hanging over the stage. To ease the cast into exploring the space, Emigh was the first to slide down the fireman's pole and climb the rigging. "He doesn't ask you to do anything that he won't do himself," actress Michelle Snyder said.

This became true in other ways. Emigh led movement and vocal warm-ups each night. When Peer was supposed to carry his mother on his back, Emigh first gave Snyder a piggyback ride. He even belly-danced with actresses while they choreographed a musical number.

He spent more time on blocking than on character work. He had to. There were intimate, two-person scenes, but also group scenes that needed constant rehearsal. In one, men toss a bride-to-be back and forth while her intended dances into a pole; in another, lunatics swarm Peer while claiming to be jungle lords and Egyptian kings. These scenes require nearly the entire cast, whose members assume one set of characters on their way to playing others. "I go offstage, shake off one skin and put on another," said Olivia Olsen.

Emigh, though, had only so much time with any one scene; he also had the dancing gnomes and the rap number, plus whatever problems arose. Two performers dropped out and needed replacements; he found a fiddler to play Grieg and Bartók, but she hurt her wrist and was replaced as well. He stayed up late after rehearsals, sending the cast emails at two and three in the morning. One night, some musicians worked after rehearsal, and Emigh said that, if they wanted, he could stay until four.

Another injury occurred 10 days before opening. In the madhouse scene, inmates push guards into pits and lower trapdoors over them. Jonathan Dent accidentally hit Chris Tyler on the head with a trapdoor. Tyler left rehearsal the next night feeling dizzy, and soon learned that he had a concussion. Emigh gave him the next four days off. By the time he came back, the show was better than anyone had hoped.

A dream play
Emigh will retire from Brown next year. Whether he directs next year depends on what the board picks. He will stay in Providence and visit campus, but he'd also like to see friends in India. "I plan to live a long life," Emigh says.

If Gynt is Emigh's last Brown show, it will be fitting. It's easy to see its carnival as a return to his Marrakesh square. One can also say that Emigh is like Peer. Both have many selves and like to travel. Both love direct experience, which theatre provides. Both also have a place they call home, and in the lovely ending that Emigh has invented, Peer learns he can go back to it. The concept of journey-and-return unites the show.

A group of faculty and students have taken a play never meant for performance and turned it into a work of breathless imagination. What it lacks in budget it makes up for in scope. A recent dress rehearsal revealed, along with Melancholy Play, the best Brown show this year. Emigh sat in Stuart Theatre, wearing a leather hat he bought in New Zealand and watching his actors pretend to be trolls. He should have taken notes, but he didn't. He was too busy smiling.

Peer Gynt plays March 6-9 and 13-16. All shows are at 8 PM but those on Sunday , which are at 2. Tickets can be purchased at the Leeds Box Office between 12 and 5 on weekdays or online at