Review: Raven Theatre’s “Hedda Gabler”

Hedda Gabler does the time warp at Raven Theatre

Review by Paige Listerud

Hedda Gabler most often gets the 19th century period treatment, so that it’s eponymous role, an epic role for women, more often than not, is interpreted in stark, severe, neurotic and even sociopathic ways.  (see examples of such augmented portrayals after the fold – including Cate Blanchett and Steppenwolf’s Martha Plimpton.)

Hedda Gabler (Mackenzie Kyle) contemplates her limited and self-limiting options.Michael Menendian, who has waited 20 years to direct this play, has pulled Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler forward to the 1930s. A time when many 19th century restrictions of gender, race, class, and propriety, still retained their grip, and yet had been slightly loosened by the gender role breakthroughs and financial excesses of the Roaring Twenties. This is not your grandmother’s Hedda; we know this Hedda, not from history, but from personal encounters with sorority sisters and Gold Coast socialites. This draws Mackenzie Kyle’s interpretation of Hedda Gabler a little further away from 19th century virago and a little closer to “Gossip Girl.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If anything, this Hedda Gabler is an expertly crafted and smooth-running timepiece, with every part so honed, tempered and balanced with the others, it clips along with deceptive grace, lightness, and ease. Menendian, the sterling cast, and adaptor Jon Robin Baitz can take pride in their exertions to update a classic without overreaching. In fact, every actor’s performance is a model of technique balanced with dynamic energy and tension.

Hedda Gabler (Mackenzie Kyle) whiles away the hours.Mackenzie Kyle (Hedda Gabler) is a near-perfect blend of boredom and anxiety, exhibiting flippant social grace masking a powder keg of sadism. Ian Novak (George Tesman) humanizes his character’s history-geek ineptitude by not diminishing him to an utter buffoon. Symphony Saunders (Thea Elvsted) and Ian Paul Custer (Eilert Lovborg) deliver sincerity and intensity without over-the-top melodrama. Jon Steinhagen (Judge Brack) portrays evil with the graceful patience of a lazy, sleek cat waiting to spring.  JoAnn Montemurro (Aunt Julia Tesman) is appropriately co-dependent, without being so cloying we do not see her razor’s edge, to be used against any who would threaten her beloved nephew, George. Claudia Garrison (Berta) shows in a few lines a woman who is obsequious, fearful, bitter, and knowing of her mistress.

The pacing is fast; the lines tossed off so consistently, one would think Noel Coward constructed this Ibsen play. Best Comedic Moment goes to Ian Novak, for his pregnant pause and clueless response right after Lovborg, his intellectual rival, has thrown down the gauntlet. The deft and light direction rests on the foundation provided by Baitz’s meticulous adaptation.

They want a piece of her:  George Tesman (Ian Novak), Mackenzie Kyle (Hedda Gabler), Jon Steinhagen (Judge Brack), and Ian Paul Custer (Eilert Lovborg).“To make this modern and accessible, we had to go over every line,” said Michael Menendian, “and ask why Hedda was making this choice. Was she an abused or neglected child by her military father? Is she mad? We didn’t want people to feel sorry for her and we didn’t want the audience to wait for her to just go ahead and die already. She has no real focus, no real talent, no real ambition, and no strong desires. She’s got no idea family, no idea of love. She has a crazy notion of what is Romantic. She lacks courage. She has a twisted idea of pleasure or fun.”

Hedda Gabler is indeed a scaredy-cat, but she does manage to express one clarified desire: to have total control over another human being. This well-tempered production inevitably reveals, through its internal balance, the paradoxes of sadomasochism. Hedda wishes total control but is, ultimately, totally controlled. Thea, her rival for influence in Lovborg’s life, seems almost genetically submissive. Still, she demonstrates greater courage than any other character in her willingness to sacrifice marriage, social approval, and economic security. It is, perhaps, overwrought to suggest BDSM themes regarding Hedda Gabler. Yet, while the late Victorian Age was excessively moralistic, it was never innocent. Henrik Ibsen’s crime was to say that in a crowded theater.

Hedda in black “I think that people are amused or fascinated by Hedda Gabler now,” said Menendian. “Not stunned, as they were in Ibsen’s time.” Indeed. I won’t claim that nothing is shocking, but with the breakdown of race, class, gender, and sexuality barriers, the shocks don’t come so hard or so startling. Not to mention, with the steady spectacle of bad behavior the celebrity rich, reality TV, and day and night soaps, we have come a little closer to Hedda, not she to us.

Hedda-Eilert-couch But, putting kink aside, even everyday power exchanges may be too much for a person who wants it all without having to give up anything. The closest Hedda comes to give and take is heightened by her final scene with Aunt Julia, who checks and counters her in as surely as any of the men in Hedda’s life. Their mutual antipathy lies beneath the veiled messages and banal social courtesies they share. Both are playing nice and nobody is fooled for a minute. The sacrifice of truth and authenticity maintains their little détente. If only Hedda could sacrifice something else, hazard something, do something that gives her life weight, value, and meaning—if not absolute freedom. If there is madness here it’s because something’s got to give in this meaningless, safe and conventional existence. This production shows the unbearable lightness of Hedda Gabler’s being.

Rating: «««½

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