An Ibsen epic gets its full-length US debut

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Peer Gynt Play by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Rolf Fjelde. Directed by Christopher Martin for CSC Repertory.

A mere 114 years after Ibsen wrote it, the full-length ''Peer Gynt'' is having its American theatrical premiere - all five hours of it. Fortunately, the resourceful CSC Repertory is in charge of the project, which careens across the stage with almost as much pep and imagination as Peer himself.

Like the massive ''Faust'' of Goethe, which it resembles in many ways, ''Peer Gynt'' is known to Americans mostly in truncated versions, presented in a single sitting in the normal theatrical way. CSC follows a European tradition, however, staging the entire epic in two parts and bringing in a quartet of actors to share the leading role.

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It takes a little while to settle into the idea of a new star with each new scene, but such switching actually suits the protean nature of Peer's personality, as translator Rolf Fjelde is quick to point out in his program notes. After all, how many dramatic heroes begin the show by stealing a friend's bride and becoming prince of the troll kingdom, go on to fame and fortune in capitalistic America, and wind up the evening with a prolonged battle against a mystical ''button molder'' who has come to end his life?

With so many adventures to swash and buckle through, it seems reasonable that Peer should look a little different with every passing hour.

More important is the question whether ''Peer Gynt'' is worth staging in its entirety, or whether crafty excerpting is really a better idea. CSC makes a good case for the uncut edition, pouring such energy into each episode that the very sprawl of the work seems indispensable to its meaning. Epics ought to be epical, and there's no reason why Ibsen's monumental creation - incorporating Norse folk tales, 19th-century geopolitics, psychological complexity, and all kinds of other elements - shouldn't take a few hours of our time, to be experienced and mulled over like the dramatic and literary classic it is.

As usual, the CSC company goes for cunning rather than lavishness in its production. The show begins on a virtually bare stage, which is filled occasionally with props - the troll palace, for example, is richly evoked - but never decked out with fancy trappings or tricky effects. The emphasis is on performance, not physical frills, and the stagecraft is accordingly modest. The result is a typical CSC production: literate, conscientiously acted, not particularly inspired, but staunch and sturdy from first scene to last.

Sharing the duties of the leading role, the four Peers (Patrick Egan, David Aston-Reese, Tom Spackman, and Ray Dooley) are all capable. Karen Sunde is an effective Aase, Patricia O'Donnell an attractive Solveig. Tom Spiller, one of the brightest CSC resources, stands out in more than one role, among them the Troll King and an Old Ape. Christopher Martin was, as usual, the thoughtful director of the show.

The CSC Rep is nothing if not ambitious - and rooted in tradition, always remembering that CSC stands for Classic Stage Company. ''Peer Gynt'' is no more gigantic than its complete Sophocles ''Oedipus'' Cycle (called a ''Sophoclon'') of last year, and again audiences have the choice of seeing it in one day or spreading it out a bit. At least one critic found the single-day route to be entirely satisfactory, a trifle long but rarely dull. Thanks to CSC for another hefty theatrical feast.

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