From Oslo, a most eccentric ‘Hedda Gabler’

February 27, 2013

With a disarming disregard for theatrical convention, the actor playing the weak-willed Jorgen Tesman in the National Theatre of Norway’s radically pared-down “Hedda Gabler” performs about 10 minutes of shtick in English before wading (in Norwegian) into Henrik Ibsen’s portrait of a poisonously idle housewife.

“He’s insanely old,” Mattis Herman Nyquist jokes from the stage of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater as he introduces a cast mate portraying doomed scholar Ejlert Lovborg. Then he turns to the evening’s Hedda, Andrea K. Braein Hovig, seated in a chair stage left. “She has two hobbies: getting pregnant and giving birth,” Nyquist declares as the audience titters and Hovig protests.

At last drawing these preliminaries to a close, Nyquist simply says: “Let’s get the curtain up.”

What the curtain reveals amounts to the opposite of the warming prologue: a cold, cerebral and foreshortened “Hedda,” recited in street clothes by its five actors. You may be encouraged by Nyquist’s opening remarks to like the performers, even as you find the figures inhabiting the work characteristically unlikable. Still, if you have never seen or read the play, this Brechtification of Ibsen by director Peer Perez Oian is probably not the optimal way to make its acquaintance.

Those who do have past experience with it may find, like me, that after a few intriguing initial minutes, the encounter seems a rather academic and heavy-lidded affair. It is admirable and even necessary that Norway’s national theater tries bold, experimental approaches with Norway’s national playwright. On this occasion, though, the experiment yields only the palest of “Heddas,” one that dishearteningly restricts an audience’s ability to glean something deeper from a company speaking in Ibsen’s language. (Surtitles are supplied, of course.)

Oian and adapter Ole Johan Skjelbred use various gambits to distance their modern-dress production from any perception that Ibsen can be stuffy. (The play was first performed in 1891.) At times, their impulse is refreshing: Hovig’s Hedda shimmies to sultry music on an old record player, and Tesman’s inattentiveness is reflected in his inability to divert his gaze from his smartphone. The actors — standing around a highly stylized rendering of a room in the couple’s house, with curtains for walls and a floor that revolves — resist efforts to define their playing space. They converse from the far corners of the stage, from the audience or even after disappearing into the wings.

While the staging succeeds in the effort to make the evening’s theatricality transparent, it doesn’t do much to compellingly illuminate the story of a neurotic woman pushed over the edge by the social limits imposed on her and the choices she has made. “I’ve made my bed, so now I lie in it,” Hedda says.

There’s an agreeable flirtatiousness in Hovig’s performance. On this occasion, Hedda is a woman with an itch. The more profound level of desperation, though, remains to be excavated.

The political issues Oian asserts he is exploring are difficult to locate as well. Hedda and Tesman, the program notes, “are representing the average person in a superficial society where ruthless individualism and the need to succeed come before anything else.” Something is lacking when the only place you learn of a production’s intentions is by reading the Playbill.

Hedda Gabler

by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Ole Johan Skjelbred. Directed by Peer Perez Oian. With Christian Greger Strom, Tone Beate Mostraum and Jorgen Langhelle. About 90 minutes. Through Wednesday at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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