Competitive figure skating is great for your ass, but it can wreak havoc on your self-esteem. Queer actor and producer Matthew Romantini spent the better part of his teenage years floating across ice in glittery costumes. Though it was great for his physique, it didn’t exactly make him happy.
“The sport really decimated my confidence,” he says. “I realized at a certain point I was doing it for someone else. The sense of freedom I felt when I quit was incredible because I was finally being true to myself.”
Being true to oneself is at the heart of Peer Gynt, a play he is mounting at the Church of the Holy Trinity starting Jan 29. Presented by the Thistle Project, a company he co-helms with producer Christine Horne, the piece also features seasoned actress Susan Coyne. Directed by Erika Batdorf, the production is conceived to use every corner of the church, with the audience following the performers through different parts of the space for much of the show.
The play may seem an unconventional choice for the company, whose mandate is to use physical performance to adapt non-theatrical sources to the stage. Penned in 1867 by Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt follows the title character from the age of sixteen till close to eighty as he fumbles through life, experiencing love, loss and death and meeting a plethora of strange characters.
“There was a big question about whether or not Ibsen ever intended for the play to be staged or simply read,” Romantini says. “That allowed us to consider it a non-theatrical source and made it fair game for our company.”
Though the full version takes roughly five hours to perform and has upwards of 80 characters, this production has been stripped down to an hour and a half and only two performers. They’ve also cross-gender cast, with Coyne playing the male lead. “We wanted to tell the story of an individual as a soul, rather than a man or a woman,” he says. “Because the text has such an alpha male quality, we felt if we cast a man in the lead it would become a comment on men and the horrible things they do.”
Romantini plays all the other characters in the piece, including numerous female roles.
“I understand gender as a construct, so when I perform female characters there’s the ability to play that construct,” he says. “My tendency is to make things funny, and so the bigger challenge is to make the female characters authentic, rather than camp.”
This is the company’s first full production since 2006’s Gorey Stories, a delightfully twisted tale that dramatized the macabre Gashlycrumb Tinies by graphic novelist Edward Gorey. It may seem like a strange move to wait more than three years to capitalize on the success Gorey Stories brought, but Romantini insists it was necessary.
“We decided Peer Gynt was going to be our next production a couple of months after we finished Gorey,” he says. “You give things enough space and silence, and eventually you come to a place of understanding and consensus.”