Saturday, April 25, 2009

Theater Review: Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” from the Roundabout Theatre Co.

The word I associate with the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler is “massacre.” The critics would have it that this gruesome act was perpetrated upon Ibsen’s 1891 drama by director Ian Rickson in collaboration with adaptors Christopher Shinn and Anne-Charlotte Hay. Such thunderous invective was hurled at the play that the Roundabout probably couldn’t bring down the final curtain fast enough two weekends ago.

I’m not sure what was eating these reviewers, for they reacted out of all proportion to what I saw onstage. Am I arguing that this production will forever alter how the Scandinavian playwright’s anti-heroine is viewed? Hardly.

But the media did a major disservice by discouraging theatergoers from a revival that was consistently challenging. Critics have expended countless ink praising shows far less competent than this one—and if they rifled through their clips and had some residual grace to go with their more-than-abundant venom, they’d own up to it.

(I’ve seen far worse shows mounted at the Roundabout alone (Paula Vogel’s shrill Red State satire The Mineola Twins, along with A Streetcar Named Desire, with John C. Reilly horrifyingly miscast as Stanley Kowalski and Natasha Richardson—undoubtedly as dear a lady as the obits have made her out to be—just not up, for whatever reason, to the demanding role of Blanche).

Yet whatever criticism accrued to either production paled compared with what happened here. You’d think that poor Mary-Louise Parker had murdered a batch of students rather than her fiercely conflicted modern anti-hero. (In fact, an Off-Broadway revival a few years ago starring Elizabeth Marvel featured acts a thousand times more bizarre than anything here (e.g., a tomato-juice dowsing) – and many critics found no real problem with the proceedings!)

Even the beginning of the play made critics take umbrage, as the audience became aware that Ms. Parker’s Hedda was lying face down in a disheveled red gown, baring her derriere. The fuss was beyond me, given that the past two decades have seen a number of actors and actresses exposing far more of their skin (including full-frontal nudity) than did Ms. Parker—and with far less motivation or realism.

Sexuality and its limits, after all, are at the heart of this drama. It’s not only that Hedda’s beauty is mentioned by more than one character, but that she uses her sexuality as a test. She wants to manage the destiny of others (such as a former lover) but thrashes about wildly at the thought that sex could leave her under the control of anyone else. Remarks that she is “glowing” and that she appears to have put on weight are enough to anger her—a clear indication that she fears pregnancy will bind her further in marriage.

At least Parker came up with some interesting, though not strange, stage business for her intelligent but emotionally constricted character, including playing the piano—hinting at the creative impulses she thinks has been buried in marriage to Jurgen, an academic whose thesis is the drably titled Domestic Crafts of Holland and Belgium in the Middle Ages.

No, I’m afraid that if the show’s depiction of Hedda seemed murky to many reviewers (and, let’s be fair, not a few theatergoers who complained online), the fault lies less with director and actress than with the playwright.

Hedda Gabler is the female counterpart to Hamlet: a character who continually resists being reshaped by others, a figure of great potential but equally great complexity and torment, someone who makes the course of the play deviate wildly away from conventional melodrama with her absolute unpredictability.

Too intelligent and talented for her husband or the proper Victorian society he represents, she turns to mischief. The name of the play itself is itself a tipoff of her dilemma, for Hedda remains the headstrong daughter of a general rather than the dutiful wife of an academic.

I’ve seen Parker in innumerable movie and TV appearances, but never onstage. This performance hasn’t discouraged me in the slightest. Her interpretation of her iconic role—restless, angry—sometimes entirely within the spirit of Ibsen’s text.

With her dark brown eyes and pale white screen luminous in the darkness of the American Airlines Theatre, she vividly embodied a woman who could only find fulfillment in destruction. “I am burning a child,” she says desperately as she tosses the work of a lifetime into the fire.

The other cast members have the thankless task for injecting complexity into characters that Ibsen created as mere foils for his ineffectual female rebel. Michael Cerveris made for a Sweeney Todd you couldn’t take your eyes off of a few years ago, but here, by necessity, he practically fades into the woodwork as Hedda’s clueless husband. (You can imagine her frustration with him—kind of like punching endlessly into a pile of feathers.) Peter Stormare invests Judge Brack with the kind of arrogance that makes you believe him when he says he wants to be “cock of the walk.”

In a post-show discussion with dramaturg Ted Sod, Patricia Denison of Barnard College illuminated the challenges of staging a play that is primarily character-driven as opposed to being a women’s rights manifesto—and, thus, infinitely challenging now as it was more than a century ago.

A few nights ago, one of my friends came up with a measured assessment of the play that did it far more justice than any of the critics did. She thought it was well-done, but not something that people had to rush out to see. That pretty much sums up my feelings, too.

No comments: