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A CurtainUp Review
---Our Original Berkshire Review---
The role of the beautiful and conflicted Hedda Gabler is one of a handful that has challenged actresses since the play opened in Munich in 1891. Eva LeGallienne not only played Hedda six times, but became one of the play's many translators and adapters.
In Kate Burton, Hedda has found a memorable new interpreter of her complicated personality. And in the new adaptation by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, Ibsen's psychological drama has gained a contemporary feel and accessibility while remaining true to Ibsen's subtle irony and humor. As for direction, Nicholas Martin once again proves his mettle for energizing a production with new ideas and with a momentum that defies audience members to look at their watches.
The plot remains unchanged, unreeling over a period of just two days. It centers on the beautiful Hedda who yearns for adventure but is too locked into conformity and sexual repression to act on her instincts. When her father, a general, leaves her little except his pistols and a passing code of honor in which death is preferable to dishonor, she marries George Tesman (Michael Emerson) a dull academic with "prospects". A former classmate of Hedda's, Mrs. Elvsted (Katie Finneran), inflames Hedda's discontent by having the courage to leave her dull husband for Eilert Lovborg (David Lansbury), a morally adventurous writer who turns out to be a competitor of Tesman's and a companion of Hedda's (her conformity and sexual repression made her threaten to shoot him rather than give in to his sexual overtures!). To bring the gun wielded in act one to its inevitable use in act four we have Hedda's interference in Elvsted's and Lovborg's lives, her relationship with Judge Brack (Harris Yulin), a family friend whose intentions are strictly dishonorable, and a lost manuscript with powerful Freudian implications.
The Hedda of this production is an uppity woman, a casebook example of smart women who make foolish choices. While she is an anti-heroine she engages our empathy for her sense of entrapment -- not just in her marriage, but inside a psyche that makes her do things because as she tells Judge Brack "I can't explain it. It just happens." Her disdainfully sarcastic putdowns of George, his adoring Aunt Julia (Angela Thornton), and herself (e.g.I"I have talent for one thing only -- boring myself to death!") are exhilaratingly abrasive and obvious cover-ups for the frantic despair that has her pacing and almost maniacally shoving around furniture whenever she's alone. While on the surface she seems stronger than Nora of The Doll's House and the dominant half of the marriage, it is also clear that she is still under the influence of her father. General Gabler's giant portrait remains a watchful presence even when moved to another room. The play's very title identifies her as her father's daughter and not Tesman's wife.
A mix of Williamstown regulars and newcomers contribute to the production's vigor as the six other characters. Michael Emerson, who impresses me more every time I see him, stands out as a George Tesman who is more a prissy aunties' boy than pompous pedant. His reading of Tesman makes him more likeable but no less irritating to his wife.
Harris Yulin, who is no stranger to playing the "heavy", is a terrific Judge Brack, even though he's way past the forty-five specified in Ibsen's stage directions. On the other hand, Kathryn Hahn who ably plays Berta the maid, is hardly old enough to have been part of the Tesman household during George's youth.
Katie Finneran is a touching and attractive Mrs. Elvsted though there are times when Les Gutman's comment about her voice in a recent Roundabout production of Arms and the Man still applies (he noted that she seemed to have misread Shaw's reference to her character's voice, confusing "frilly" with "shrilly"). David Lansbury is best in the tense scene where he and Hedda, with Tesman and Brack in the next room, use the photo album of her honeymoon with Tesman as a guise for discussing their erstwhile intimate friendship in passionate whispers. His reaching angrily at the top of her dress is a touch not in the stage direction -- but it works, for Eilert, like Hedda, "has no modulation in him, no way of stopping himself" (a statement made by the usually obtuse George).
Whatever the cast's strengths and occasional shortcomings, it is Kate Burton who is the play's shining light. Her voice projection alone is a marvel in this day when actors often can't be heard without heavy amplification.
The play, which ran for two weeks at the much smaller, Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, has transferred well to the much larger WTF main stage. Alexander Dodge's gray set is a character in its own right. It follows all of Ibsen's stage direction but manages to combine the realism usual for Ibsen's plays with a spare modernity. The bare walls, the mock book-lined study reflect the barrenness of Hedda's life. The furniture is Victorian in style, but there's no Victorian clutter. Typical of Mr. Martin's work, everything else about the staging is just right: Michael Kass's handsome costumes, especially Hedda's flowing peignoir during her first scene and the natty pin-striped suit in which Judge Brack makes his entry; Kevin Adam's brilliant lighting (keep your eye on the shadows cast on that tall fire place when Hedda is about to burn the manuscript); and Peter Golub's beautiful incidental music.
Hedda Gabler remains one of the theater's most elusive characters. We still have to piece together her history (e.g. details about her mother, her relationship with her father). Her destructiveness in the interest of control will forever keep her a basically unsympathetic character, but Ms. Burton has struck theatrical gold in digging for what sympathy there is to be found. Her performance and this stunning production solidify Ibsen's standing as "the father of modern drama" and this play's place in the pantheon of timeless plays.
LINKS TO IBSEN AT CurtainUp
A Doll's House
John Gabriel Borkman
The Wild Duck
The Ibsen Museum: A Postcard from Norway (feature)
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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