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Tampa Rep's 'Gnit' is a sharp commentary on narcissism in the age of selfies

Cast members in Tampa Repertory Theatre's Gnit, by Will Eno, include Jon VanMiddlesworth and Lauren Buglioli. Photo by Megan Lamasney.
Published Jan. 16, 2018

By JULIE GARISTO

Times Correspondent

TAMPA — Tampa Repertory Theatre's Gnit strikes gold for theatergoers who appreciate deadpan wit, clever wordplay and incisive commentary on the human condition.

First produced in 2013, the retread of a Scandinavian classic supplies a bellyful of laughs followed by quick releases of therapeutic catharsis. Pronounced gah-nit, Gnit gives us a bold adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Playwright Will Eno distilled the five-act verse play into a two-act contemporary dramedy that follows a similarly cheerful ne'er-do-well, who gets into binds, abandons loved ones and wrecks lives as he traipses around the world in search of his "true self."

Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in the late 19th Century as a cautionary tale, reacting to what he perceived as the self-indulgence of the Modernists. A century-and-a-half later, Eno's story of Peter Gnit resonates with anyone annoyed by the narcissism of today's selfie generation.

Gnit opens with the goofy protagonist's mom (another brilliant turn by Lynne Locher) offering some humorous, if contradictory, advice that all mothers can relate to: "Never have children. ... Or, I don't know, have children. Either way you end up talking to yourself." The quip sets us on our way for a linguistic joyride with the twists and turns of nonsequiturs and comedic contradictions — specialties of award-winning playwright Eno.

Tampa Rep's artistic director C. David Frankel deftly directs a first-rate cast, who, except for the lead, transform into multiple roles throughout the show. Jon VanMiddlesworth embodies Peter Gnit with wide-eyed optimism and charming charisma. No easy feat considering that Eno conceived his central character to be much more unsympathetic than Ibsen's affable Peer Gynt. His choice adds a moral gravitas, and VanMiddlesworth has the goods to make him both loathsome and watchable.

A queen of physical comedy, Jonelle Meyer plays multiple female roles and a hilariously stern preacher. Equally versatile and nimble, T.R. Butler plays the Town — literally everyone else Gnit encounters, acting out conversations. Lauren Buglioli enchants as love-interest Solvay with earthy affection while efficiently pulling off a snide male bartender. Nick Hoop also multitasks marvelously as an assortment of bystanders.

The spot-on but minimal production has surprising touches, such as the cheeky floor map designed by Frankel and scenic designer Lea Umberger. Igor Santos graces the production with a jingle-jangle score, a folksy twist on Grieg's famous suite, which premiered with Ibsen's production of Peer Gynt at his request.

"I suggested to Igor Santos, our composer, that he play with Grieg's music the way Eno played with the play," shared Frankel after opening weekend. "I sent Eno the first sample, which was Igor's take on In the Hall of the Mountain King, and he loved it."

The play isn't for everyone. If you don't enjoy playwrights who dissect societal norms and theatrical tropes, or get annoyed by absurdist humor and require the emotional highs and lows of a traditional plot, you might want to sit Gnit out.

According to Frankel, Eno "has a clear-eyed View if humanity's flaws, but also an empathy for all things human — even not so good things."

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