Despite some awkward staging decisions and script tampering, there is plenty of lively drive in this production of Hedda Gabler.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. Adapted and directed by Tony Estrella. Staged by the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket, RI, through November 30.
By Bill Marx
While writing Hedda Gabler, dramatist Henrik Ibsen noted that “life for Hedda is a farce which isn’t worth seeing through to the end.” In his involving if problematic adaptation/update of the play for the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, director Tony Estrella swaps sit-com for farce: the result is that at times the tone of the evening veers into overzealous caricature. But for all the gaucheries of the staging and the questionable script tampering, there is plenty of drive in this production, more so than in the staid 2001 Huntington Theatre Company version (adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz) starring Kate Burton. Like the pregnant Hedda, this production’s got life in it. Even when surrounded by TV-sized cartoons, Ibsen’s paradoxical maiden of malice still manages to fascinate, especially when Marianna Bassham ladles on the neurotic pizazz.
The problems begin with Estrella’s decision to remove the furniture in the fashionable Gabler mansion. We are told that the sofa and chairs have not been delivered in time for the return of wimpy academic George Tesman and Hedda from their honeymoon. Throughout the production the characters uncomfortably sit on suitcases and trunks (somehow the piano was brought in as well as a particularly uninspired portrait of General Gabler). Aside from suggesting transience, the decision only heightens the albino ugliness of Michael McGarty’s stark set – this is minimalism stretched well beyond the point of miserable. (The crucial fireplace is shoved into a corner of the stage.) Other head scratchers: Estrella clumsily revs up the script’s language (“feedback” pops up) and piles on the bad puns (Hedda and head) while adding superfluous ‘symbolic’ business, such as having fall leaves shower out of the sky on Hedda. And for some reason the opening scene of the play is played with undue deliberation while the ending comes off as rushed — we need to see and feel Hedda’s mounting desperation, but here she is tucked away from the audience and quickly dispatched.
Finally, a number of the figures surrounding Hedda are either over- or under-powered. George Tesman, Ibsen’s infantilized ninny, is played by Joe Short as a manic dweeb, a bombastic pedant. Berta the aging maid is young here, and Katie Travers reacts with comic overkill to the other characters throughout the production. Estrella encourages the hamming, though, by having Hedda forget Berta’s name with jackhammer regularity. Ironically, Jim O’Brien’s Judge Brack doesn’t supply the requisite pools of oiliness, the smug sense of sexual gamesmanship — he appears here to be a naughty wanna-be rogue who may well be in over his head. Alexander Platt’s Eilert Lovborg is energetic, but he lacks the romantic posturing, the existential angst of the self-destructive artist. The figure has to suggest what Hedda would like to be but can’t because of her fear of scandal.
Still, despite all of this staging weirdness, Ibsen’s play still compels. Estrella uses contemporary music to make effectively ironic comments on the action. Refreshingly, Marya Lowry does not turn Juliana Tesman into a dotty old maid (which is done too often in productions), her altruism garnering condescention or derision. The actress gives the character dignity and that is what Ibsen wanted: she is a woman who is doing something that Hedda would find impossible — caring for the weak and ill. Karen Carpenter supplies a disciplined performance as Thea Elvsted; she is suitably disgusted by Lovborg’s flameout.
Best of all, Bassham does not play Hedda as a dashing hellion on wheels, cultivating the audience’s favor by wittily putting down the bourgeous knuckleheads in the neighborhood. Neither does the actress try to win our sympathy. Her Hedda is obviously vulnerable yet she is unlikeably steely. There are strange directorial choices – I have never seen Hedda sink to her knees after she is caught insulting Juliana’s hat. But Bassham makes that moment of (sham?) shame work, even infusing her portrait with unusual moments of giddy joy, a wistful anarchism. Bassham’s amusement at Brack’s discomfort when her character takes a shot at him is infectious. What the actress misses is Hedda’s cool aristocratic hauteur. Hedda fancies herself to be a cut above the others; she is bedeviled by a restless urge to put that superiority into action. That intimation of potential makes the repression of Hedda’s talents and energies all the more tragic.
If only Bassham was surrounded with more nuance and less gesticulating. I noticed the same blunderbuss approach to staging Ibsen in Barrington Stage’s recent revival of Arthur Miller’s (sledge-hammer obvious) version of An Enemy of the People. Perhaps it is a by-product of making theater for people whose experience of acting comes mainly through watching performances on screens: TV programs, smart phones, movies, video games. Our directors and playwrights are losing their trust in the intelligence and imagination of audiences — every point must be underlined twice, everything must be made ‘big’ so there will be no misunderstandings. Dialogue must neither be perceived to challenge or to make undue demands on the patience of viewers. Of course, that is the opposite of what the great dramatists had in mind — their capacious characters demand the infusion of subtle interpretive detail, meticulous gradations in speech and movement that make performances (and interpretations) distinctive. As the Sandra Feinsten-Gamm Theatre production proves, Hedda Gabler is powerful even when it is played broadly — but we should demand more from our theaters because there is so much more in Ibsen.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.