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A CurtainUp Review
Hedda Gabler

Second Thoughts on Hedda Gabler on Broadway

Kate Burton & Michael Emerson
Kate Burton & Michael Emerson
I can certainly agree with my esteemed editor Elyse Sommer, whose review of this production from the Berkshires during the summer of 2000 follows, that Jon Robin Baitz's new adaptation of this classic Ibsen play does a fine job of giving it an accessible, contemporary spin without doing any violence to the playwright's intentions, and I'd go on to concur that it is Kate Burton who is at the center of this production. Unfortunately, I have to part company on her further assessment that Burton was a "shining light". I was, instead, quite disappointed by Ms. Burton's performance, and director Nicholas Martin's "energizing...ideas".

A new translation, when it is good, serves to dislodge the linguistic roadblocks between the audience and the stage. Many old translations of Ibsen rely on stodgy, Victorian language that belies the playwright's modernity and hamper our ability to find verisimilitude. Happily, Baitz has given us a text that is both entertaining and believable; unfortunately, Burton and Martin have conspired to render Hedda a woman we can't take seriously. There are times when Martin's staging reads more like soap opera than the sort of psychological drama Ibsen had in mind, and others where a greed for laughs occludes the poignancy of its comic sensibility. In the third act, Burton's emotional outbursts are freakish, leading to what comes off as a campy finale. Her performance in the final act is more persuasive, but we have been so deprived of any insight into her building interior struggle that we have no reason to believe it.

The work of the normally super-reliable Michael Emerson doesn't fare much better. His Tesman is just a silly boy: his two-dimensional cartoon character robs the character of any depth. Harris Yulin's Judge is not off-key, but he brings little to the role beyond himself. The other roles are executed more successfully. David Lansbury begins and ends quite convincingly, although he is drawn into the general tenor of the production sometimes in between. The only fully satisfying portrayals are from the two newcomers to the cast since Williamstown -- Jennifer Van Dyck as Mrs. Elvsted and Maria Cellario who appears to be a more age-appropriate Berta the maid than her predecessor -- and Angela Thornton's Aunt Julia.

Set, costume and lighting design are essentially as they were in the earlier staging, and quite fine. The sound design, however, now suffers from severe over-miking (the strong voice of Ms. Burton which Elyse praised in Williamstown became a part of the overall directionless mush) and the musical accompaniment I found overwrought, never more so than in the unfortunate ending of the third act to which I made reference earlier.

Aside from his dubious tonal choices, Mr. Martin's direction is impeccable and sometimes inspired. (His staging of the scene in which Hedda and Lovborg are left alone in the drawing room is stunning.) And as Elyse noted, his momentum prevents any sense of lag. (Fifteen minutes cut from the Williamstown running time couldn't have hurt in this regard.) But he should have paid attention to the interesting program notes of Mr. Baitz, who points out that " what makes Ibsen's play a masterpiece, not just feminist theatre, but a linchpin of modern drama, is the opportunity to glimpse the real, horrible, yet often comic mechanics of emotional violence at a very close range." It's an opportunity squandered here. ---Les Gutman

---Our Original Berkshire Review---

Life is not tragic. Life is ridiculous. And that cannot be borne.
-- Henrik Ibsen
The role of the beautiful and conflicted Hedda Gabler is one of a handful that has challenged actresses since the play opened in Munich in 1891. Eva LeGallienne not only played Hedda six times, but became one of the play's many translators and adapters.

In Kate Burton, Hedda has found a memorable new interpreter of her complicated personality. And in the new adaptation by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, Ibsen's psychological drama has gained a contemporary feel and accessibility while remaining true to Ibsen's subtle irony and humor. As for direction, Nicholas Martin once again proves his mettle for energizing a production with new ideas and with a momentum that defies audience members to look at their watches.

The plot remains unchanged, unreeling over a period of just two days. It centers on the beautiful Hedda who yearns for adventure but is too locked into conformity and sexual repression to act on her instincts. When her father, a general, leaves her little except his pistols and a passing code of honor in which death is preferable to dishonor, she marries George Tesman (Michael Emerson) a dull academic with "prospects". A former classmate of Hedda's, Mrs. Elvsted (Katie Finneran), inflames Hedda's discontent by having the courage to leave her dull husband for Eilert Lovborg (David Lansbury), a morally adventurous writer who turns out to be a competitor of Tesman's and a companion of Hedda's (her conformity and sexual repression made her threaten to shoot him rather than give in to his sexual overtures!). To bring the gun wielded in act one to its inevitable use in act four we have Hedda's interference in Elvsted's and Lovborg's lives, her relationship with Judge Brack (Harris Yulin), a family friend whose intentions are strictly dishonorable, and a lost manuscript with powerful Freudian implications.

The Hedda of this production is an uppity woman, a casebook example of smart women who make foolish choices. While she is an anti-heroine she engages our empathy for her sense of entrapment -- not just in her marriage, but inside a psyche that makes her do things because as she tells Judge Brack "I can't explain it. It just happens." Her disdainfully sarcastic putdowns of George, his adoring Aunt Julia (Angela Thornton), and herself (e.g.I"I have talent for one thing only -- boring myself to death!") are exhilaratingly abrasive and obvious cover-ups for the frantic despair that has her pacing and almost maniacally shoving around furniture whenever she's alone. While on the surface she seems stronger than Nora of The Doll's House and the dominant half of the marriage, it is also clear that she is still under the influence of her father. General Gabler's giant portrait remains a watchful presence even when moved to another room. The play's very title identifies her as her father's daughter and not Tesman's wife.

A mix of Williamstown regulars and newcomers contribute to the production's vigor as the six other characters. Michael Emerson, who impresses me more every time I see him, stands out as a George Tesman who is more a prissy aunties' boy than pompous pedant. His reading of Tesman makes him more likeable but no less irritating to his wife.

Harris Yulin, who is no stranger to playing the "heavy", is a terrific Judge Brack, even though he's way past the forty-five specified in Ibsen's stage directions. On the other hand, Kathryn Hahn who ably plays Berta the maid, is hardly old enough to have been part of the Tesman household during George's youth.

Katie Finneran is a touching and attractive Mrs. Elvsted though there are times when Les Gutman's comment about her voice in a recent Roundabout production of Arms and the Man still applies (he noted that she seemed to have misread Shaw's reference to her character's voice, confusing "frilly" with "shrilly"). David Lansbury is best in the tense scene where he and Hedda, with Tesman and Brack in the next room, use the photo album of her honeymoon with Tesman as a guise for discussing their erstwhile intimate friendship in passionate whispers. His reaching angrily at the top of her dress is a touch not in the stage direction -- but it works, for Eilert, like Hedda, "has no modulation in him, no way of stopping himself" (a statement made by the usually obtuse George).

Whatever the cast's strengths and occasional shortcomings, it is Kate Burton who is the play's shining light. Her voice projection alone is a marvel in this day when actors often can't be heard without heavy amplification.

The play, which ran for two weeks at the much smaller, Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, has transferred well to the much larger WTF main stage. Alexander Dodge's gray set is a character in its own right. It follows all of Ibsen's stage direction but manages to combine the realism usual for Ibsen's plays with a spare modernity. The bare walls, the mock book-lined study reflect the barrenness of Hedda's life. The furniture is Victorian in style, but there's no Victorian clutter. Typical of Mr. Martin's work, everything else about the staging is just right: Michael Kass's handsome costumes, especially Hedda's flowing peignoir during her first scene and the natty pin-striped suit in which Judge Brack makes his entry; Kevin Adam's brilliant lighting (keep your eye on the shadows cast on that tall fire place when Hedda is about to burn the manuscript); and Peter Golub's beautiful incidental music.

Hedda Gabler remains one of the theater's most elusive characters. We still have to piece together her history (e.g. details about her mother, her relationship with her father). Her destructiveness in the interest of control will forever keep her a basically unsympathetic character, but Ms. Burton has struck theatrical gold in digging for what sympathy there is to be found. Her performance and this stunning production solidify Ibsen's standing as "the father of modern drama" and this play's place in the pantheon of timeless plays.

A Doll's House
John Gabriel Borkman
Peer Gynt
The Wild Duck
The Ibsen Museum: A Postcard from Norway (feature)

By Henrik Ibsen
Newly adapted by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Cast: Kate Burton - Hedda; Michael Emerson - George Tesman; Jennifer Van Dyck (Katie Finneran@Williamstown) - Mrs. Elvsted; Maria Cellario (Kathryn Hahn@Williamstown) - Berta; David Lansbury - Eilert Lovborg; Angela Thornton-Ms. Tesman/Aunt Julia; Harris Yulin- Judge Brack; Claire Lautier -Servant
Set Design: Alexander Dodge
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Sound Design: Jerry Yager
Original Music: Peter Golub
Ambassador, 219 W. 49th St. (Broadway/8th Av), 239-6200
(Original venue: Adams Memorial Theater of the Williamstown Theatre Festival)
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
8/19/01-1/13/02; opening 10/04/01.
Tue-Sat @ 8 pm, Wed & Sat @ 2 pm, Sun @ 3 pm -- $30-$70
Original review 7/20/01;
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Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 7/20 performance, re-review at Ambassador by Les Gutman based on 10/09/01 performance
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