Friday, February 06, 2009

New Review: Hedda Gabler

For New York Press.

Here's the tease:

Something about Christopher Shinn's adaptation of Hedda Gabler, the Henrik Ibsen play receiving a discordant revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company, is very 21st century stylistically. To the ear, the dialogue might seem 19th century, but notice the shorter sentences, the dollops of phrasing tighter than a tourniquet.

And heaven knows Mary-Louise Parker’s Hedda—a role often called the female Hamlet—is emotionally bleeding, connected to her vitriol in a very contemporary way. Just one thing stops all this from working: Henrik Ibsen.

As director Ian Rickson surely knows in the wake of this revival, Hedda Gabler is a late 19th-century play best realized with an early 20th-century dramaturgy in mind.To elaborate on this, consider the play’s events.

Hedda, a general’s daughter, is extremely spoiled and petulant. Ibsen, despite creating a razor-sharp character, only hints as to why this is. For the actress playing Hedda, the challenge is to color in the lines, to drop clues as to what makes her such a bitch.

Hedda only married a bland academic, Jorgen Tesman (a serviceable Michael Cerveris), whom she does not love, to toy with him. When Tesman’s erstwhile academic rival, Eljert Lvborg (a keen Paul Sparks), arrives, Hedda is orgasmic at the idea of making mischief, wedging herself between Eljert and her former schoolmate, earnest Thea Elvsted (a spasmodic Ana Reeder).

Were Hedda less enigmatic, Ibsen’s plot would make the play a potboiler. Eljert, for example, a now-dry alcoholic, has written a manuscript of such accomplishment, assisted by Thea, that it threatens Jorgen’s academic future. Not for Jorgen but simply for fun, Hedda taunts him with drink. When Judge Brack (a coy and clever Peter Stormare), who lusts after Hedda, throws a party attended by Eljert and Jorgen, Eljert falls off the wagon, visits a whorehouse and loses the manuscript.

Or so he thinks. Jorgen, busy with his Aunt Juliane (a stolid Helen Carey) and another aunt near death, finds the manuscript and leaves it with Hedda, thinking it secure. When Eljert visits, tearfully confessing he’s lost the manuscript, Hedda doesn’t hand it to him, she hands him a pistol and imbues him with every reason to do with it what comes unnaturally.

So we’re really talking about a mammoth she-bitch, and Parker’s conceit is to make Hedda an overripe nubile from Beverly Hills 90210: overindulged, sophomoric and soporific. It’s an error to play her without connecting Ibsen’s pre-feminist dots; to roll her eyes to indicate disgust in lieu of unearthing what makes a well-to-do lady lope like a loon. Hedda may hate the world, but Parker’s bag of tics is anachronistic, with double takes worthy of a Mike Nichols comedy and more mugging than a night in South Central Los Angeles.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: