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Editorial Review

A 1930s ‘Hedda Gabler’

By Celia Wren
Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012

A movie screen periodically usurps part of a Norwegian living room in Scena Theatre's "Hedda Gabler." It happens at the rear of the room, behind the fashionably uncomfortable 1930s furniture, where white, gauzy curtains conceal a balcony. Before Act I starts, black-and-white footage of rural and maritime Scandinavia flickers across the curtains, turning them into a de facto screen; at intermission, the word "Intermission" spells itself out in a retro font. There's a suggestion, in other words, that we're watching a 1930s "Hedda Gabler" movie - and that's a prudent hint for director Robert McNamara to drop, because his brisk and watchable, if not revelatory, production contains some acting so hyperbolic it seems movie-palace scale.

We're not griping about Kerry Waters's portrait of Henrik Ibsen's antiheroine, whose restless dissatisfaction with life - specifically with life as a new bride in a Norwegian town - sets crisis in motion. Hedda Gabler has something of a super-size soul, after all, and could easily go a few rounds with, say, Greta Garbo. Suitably enough, Waters sweeps about with an imposingly hardened air, huskily intoning her lines (the production uses Brian Friel's lively, accessible 2008 adaptation of Ibsen's script) and radiating mystery and jaded solipsism. This general's daughter knows she is far too interesting to be married to George Tesman (Lee Ordeman), an unimaginative academic researching domestic crafts in 10th-century Holland.

Admittedly, Waters's turn is a trifle monotonous. Her stony demeanor rarely allows any glimpses of the charisma that presumably attracted men like bees to honey when Hedda was single. Only when the bored bride steps onto the balcony to try her pistols on an approaching visitor, laughing and firing with relish, does a hint of charm flair. (Costume designer Megan Holeva underscores the character's self-importance with conspicuous outfits, such as the kimono-and-pearls ensemble that Hedda wears one morning.)

A couple of the production's smaller parts come across as mannered and melodramatic. As Thea Elvsted, a timid housewife who has found the courage to leave her husband, actress Danielle Davy goes overboard on tamped-down hysteria. And Jim Jorgensen turns the devious but overtly respectable Judge Brack into a caricature: a foppish dandy, complete with cane-twirling skills and demonic smirks.

Eric Lucas brings a more plausible intensity to the role of Eilert Lovborg, Tesman's brilliant but dissolute professional rival, and Rena Cherry Brown is enjoyably chipper as Tesman's well-bred aunt, Juliana, who raps her fists together when she gets excited. The aunt's ticklish relationship with Hedda registers before the latter even appears: On first entering the newlyweds' stylish living room (Michael C. Stepowany is set designer), the aunt tries out the sleek Wassily chair, slides too far back on the leather and has trouble getting up.

The period furniture and the movie projections point to the specific year in which McNamara has chosen to set this "Hedda Gabler": 1938. They're more or less the only markers of that choice. In his "Director's Notes," McNamara writes that the play's themes, including some vaguely Nietzschean ideas bandied about by Hedda and Lovborg, resonate with the "looming horizon of death and destruction that was World War II." But nothing in the production conveys an atmosphere of broad, encroaching menace. Hedda and her acquaintances seem caught up in an intimate circle of problems, and any Ubermensch-evoking talk flits by with little emphasis. Sure, it could be 1938, but it could also be other years after the invention of the Wassily chair.

'Hedda Gabbler': Fast forward
By Jess Righthand
Friday, Jan. 6, 2012

Often labeled the female Hamlet, the titular character in Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" is one of the most complex women in all of theater, on par with the unstable Blanche from "A Streetcar Named Desire." Despite her seductive beauty, Hedda's emotions range from flashes of sudden, violent anger to warm sensitivity to outright despair. She's a psychological tornado, and implosion seems all but imminent.

The 1890 "Hedda Gabler" is heavy fare to start a new year. But Scena Theatre has chosen to inject its first production of 2012 with a fresh dose of modernity.

"See, in America we have this, what I call the 'cultural cringe,' " says director Robert McNamara, who is also Scena's artistic director. "Chekhov has to be done with samovars, and Ibsen has to be men in frock coats, women in long, 19th-century dresses. In Germany, [Ibsen] plays were really successful, and I couldn't put my finger on it. And I realized they didn't set them in the same time period. They moved them slightly forward into their history."

Taking his cue from those German productions, McNamara hit fast-forward, shifting the setting of the play to the 1930s. In concordance with lead actress Kerry Waters, McNamara also selected Irish dramatist Brian Friel's 2008 adaptation, which Waters says makes the language more relatable.

"There have been many different translations over the years," Waters says, "and a lot of them tend to be very stilted, which sort of observes the formality of how people would speak in the 1890s. And in this particular version . . . the actual language is very free flowing and very natural, so that makes it more fun."

In the show, Hedda, the daughter of a decorated general, has just married George, a nice, if inconsequential, academic. She has returned from their honeymoon pregnant and already is suffocating in her marriage, a fact that becomes abundantly clear through her volatile temperament.

"Hedda Gabler is two women, really," says McNamara. "She's the woman they all say she is, this beautiful woman. When you're beautiful, all these men have expectations. So there's that. She's also the daughter of a general, a power figure. He leaves her without any money . . . so she's dealing with that. You know, 'Where do I go? What do I do?' "

McNamara refers to the show as a star vehicle, and for good reason. The list of actresses who have played Hedda includes Ingrid Bergman, Glenda Jackson and Cate Blanchett. Waters says she has deliberately resisted the urge to study other performances to ensure the authenticity of her delivery.

"You bring what you can of your own unique qualities as a person to play her," she says. "Otherwise you just get caught in a stereotype trap, of, let's say, seeing Hedda only in one dimension, only as a tyrant or a victim. She's all of those things. That's why the play is really rich."

Today, the world of "Hedda Gabler" can seem overly antiquated, a place populated by aristocratic housewives driven to the edge of sanity by the confines of their paradoxically extravagant lives. But Ibsen's work - which often delved deeply into the social and economic inequities prevalent in Europe during the latter half of the 19th century - is considered by many to have been nothing short of revolutionary for its time.

"You have to take your hat off to Ibsen because he's writing about women in a way that no one had written about women before," Waters says. "He was the first modern playwright of the period - except Chekhov - to . . . address these domestic issues."

So, how will a play written about Norwegian society at the end of the 19th century translate to its new setting in the 20th?

"This play's 121 years old," McNamara says. "But you'll see it's powerful. What it's saying about someone being caught in a world where they can't fit in, being choked off, slowly strangulated as it were, is very powerful."