Cast of Peer Gynt
Peer Gynt stars Mahalia Banton ’19, Marina Dumont, Justin Henriksen ’18, Kylie Levy ’17 (Mount Holyoke), Advaita Rao-Sharma ’19, Lorelle Sang ’21, Emma Wilfert ’20, Leah Woodbridge ’20, Lu Yang ’19 and Mikayla Ybarra-Young ’20.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom,” wrote Aristotle. “To thine own self be true,” says Polonius in Hamlet. “Just be yourself,” advise parents everywhere.

The ancient yet timeless concept of knowing one’s self was the driving force behind Amherst’s contemporary adaptation of Henrick Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, presented Nov. 9–11 in Kirby Theater.

Directed by Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance Yagil Eliraz and performed by Amherst and Five College students, Peer Gynt spanned the lifetime of the eponymous Peer, who set out on a quest to find out who he is. “It’s an insatiable driving force,” Eliraz said, “and he only gets hungrier.”

Professor Yagil Eliraz
Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance Yagil Eliraz directs.

Eliraz worked with Joshua Wren ’14 and the cast to adapt Ibsen’s classic, whittling five acts to four while keeping the overall structure of the original plot. The adaptation included many of Ibsen’s original characters—local villagers and a button maker, for instance—alongside contemporary political figures, including Donald Trump and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Adapting classic narratives is at the heart of Eliraz’s “Re-Imagining the Classics” course, which explores how artists across disciplines reinterpret traditional stories. “We revisit canonized theatrical works and their evolutions and adaptations as time progresses,” said Mikayla Young ’20, a cast member who plans to major in theater and dance. 

Emma Wilfert ’20
From scene to scene in this new production, each of the 10 cast members takes a turn playing Peer.

The story of Peer Gynt had been brewing in Eliraz’s mind for a few years, since his graduate school days at Yale, where he earned an M.F.A. in theater directing. “I’m excited by plays with universal and existential themes that transcend time and place,” he said. “Peer Gynt is a perfect example of this.” He describes the character Peer as the “personification of our time,” in which “individualism often comes at the expense of solidarity and social consciousness.” 

From scene to scene in the new production, each of the 10 cast members took a turn playing Peer. This casting decision, said Eliraz, paralleled Peer’s quest to discover himself, and also demonstrated that there is a complex mix of good and bad in all of us. Ultimately, Peer’s journey is a selfish one with an trenchant moral: good people are good to others.

Cast of Peer Gynt
Peer is the “personification of our time,” in which “individualism often comes at the expense of solidarity and social consciousness.”

“This play has taught me that a great part of human nature is inherently selfish,” said Justin Henriksen ’18, one of the actors. He hoped those who saw the play would “question their own selfishness” and “reflect on how they go about living their daily lives.”

For Emma Wilfert ’20, playing a character whose actions she morally opposes was a struggle. “It put me out of my comfort zone to be in the play,” she said. “That being said, I feel like some of his most immoral actions are what makes this story relevant today. In a time of political turmoil, Peer Gynt, in some ways, can be a reminder of what not to do.”

Cast of Peer Gynt