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A CurtainUp Review
Hedda Gabler

Why should I be happy?— Hedda
 Hedda Gabler
Mary Louise Parker and Paul Sparks in Hedda Gabler
(Photo: Nigel Parry)
  She is one of the most enigmatic and psychologically intriguing heroines to ever dominate and propel a major work of dramatic literature. To see Mary-Louise Parker, one of the most idiosyncratic and dramatically unpredictable actors, take charge and expose both Hedda Gabler's interior life and exterior persona is quite a treat as well as a tribute to her ability to astonish us (as if she doesn't always do that for good or bad).

  As Elyse Sommer's essay below points out this title character of Henrik Ibsen's 1890 classic has both attracted and confounded many of the 20th century's most daring actresses. To see the extraordinarily beautiful Parker stalk the stage, dominate her surroundings and devour all those around her might seem to be the typical approach to Hedda. But be aware that Parker is taking a dangerous route through the role. She does the almost unimaginable by keeping the culpable world in tow at the same time she is allowing us to see the psychological machinery that makes her tick. It could be construed as indicating motivation were it not done with a technique of impeccable artistry and calculated design. The role asks of those who dare to take the challenge to not only be a hard-hearted, devious, deceitful, and even bloodthirsty manipulator, but also a woman of great strength, the daughter of the respected and socially prominent General Gabler, desperately trying to gain control of her destiny.

  In this new adaptation by Christopher Shinn and directed by Ian Rickson, Parker creates a Hedda that is not like anything you have seen before. She is restless and riveting, but more to the point she is recklessly and openly deliberate in dealing with her fears. That Hedda is self-centered may be a given, but it is in her neurotic amusement of what she is capable of that Parker stands apart from the others. That she looks stunning in the three gowns designed for her by Ann Roth is hardly the reason you can't keep your eyes off of her.

  Yes, there are many ways to interpret the role. But to Parker's credit, we judge Hedda not as evil or deranged but as a bored, aristocratic woman with a ferocious need to test and challenge the suffocating Victorian society in which she lives. Energized and revitalized by Shinn's adaptation (from a literal translation by Anne-Charlotte Harvey) our ears are immediately set at ease with the commendably clear and unfussy syntax. I do not have the new text, but based on the older version I do have, I can say that Ibsen's ironies and subtleties have not been diminished or lost.

  Hedda Gabler also benefits from Ian Rickson's staging, conspicuous for his adoration and consideration of the play's centerpiece. Our very first image of Hedda awakening sensually on a sofa in the ante-room and stretching her limbs beneath a large clouded mirror is a stunner, but only the first of a series of postures and attitudes that will define perhaps the most willful Hedda of them all.

  Rickson's approach to Hedda is more devilishly fun than was his direction of the recently closed The Seagull. Credit Rickson with the way Hedda's fits of skittishness send her circling the room like a caged tigress, and in the cunningly condescending manner she feigns her affection for Jorgon Tesman (Michael Cerveris), her studious and blindly adoring husband. With his bald head becoming his signature, as well as his unfailing ability to reside inventively with the emotional core of a character, the remarkable Cerveris brilliantly makes Jorgon's clueless nature its own reward. His feelings are not lost on his devoted Aunt Julian (Helen Carey), whose genuine affection for her nephew is seen as real and true.

  Having just returned fresh from their honeymoon, Hedda is already conflicted by the reasons she chose Tesman over the charismatic, unstable, and impetuous genius Ejlert Lovborg (Paul Sparks). Bored by the thought of living a dutiful provincial life, and without any hope of finding a release for her frustrations, she takes to pulling the strings of others around her. Equally impressive is Ana Reeder (repeating the role she played in the Van Hove production) as the gullible Mrs. Thea Elvsted. Reeder is quite wonderful as the less mischievous schemer who, in her own disarming way, provokes the jealous Hedda into action and to take revenge after Thea unwittingly confides to Hedda that she has left her husband, and is in love with Lovborg, Hedda's former lover. Although Hedda's plan succeeds, it also backfires when she finds that it has brought Tesman and Thea together and that she has come under the power of the clever and unctuously lecherous Judge Brack (Peter Stormare).

  I wish I could say that everyone in the cast has found successful ways to cope with the classicism of the text and the contemporary approach to their characters. While the action revolves around Parker, as the intelligent woman who spins out of control in a series of foolish maneuvers, not the least of which has her re-arranging furniture and opening and closing the drapes, the others, as pawns, are also doing their best making lesser impressions.

  Sparks, who has earned his award-worthy and winning performances in a number of Off Broadway plays, is in over his head as Ejlert and has not yet come near to mastering the text for meaning. Parker carries him as best as she can, especially in the passionate but aborted, love-making scene. This is Spark's best moment. It is also an eye opener as Hedda lifts up her skirt and Lovborg wastes no time giving his hand the sense of direction he otherwise failed to have.

  I don't know what to make of Stormare's almost cryptic performance as the Judge Brack. But why an actor who studied with Ingmar Berman in his own native land couldn't convince us that he knew what he was saying or even pretend to belong in the play is a puzzle. There is the scene in which Hedda playfully fires two shots at Brack. She misses. Drat. Helen Carey was more at home, as Berte, the Tesman's maid.

  A touch of modernism is moodily affixed to the play with PJ Harvey's music, a touch that adds to our interest in the vast and largely colorless décor of the Tesman house, created by Hildegard Bechtler and superbly lighted by Natasha Katz. Perhaps it can't be done better, but the final moment of the play, a freeze if you will, after the gun shot is heard off-stage and the Judge says "Who would do such a thing" doesn't have the climactic punch one might expect. However, I suspect that Ibsen, known as the father of modern drama would likely say, "they do too.," Despite my objections, this is a Hedda that you shouldn't miss (even without a pistol in your hand).

Hedda Gabler
  By Henrik Ibsen
  Adaptation by Christopher Shinn Directed by Ian Rickson
Cast: Helen Carey (Juliane Tesman), Lois Markle (Berte), Michael Cerveris (Jorgen Tesman), Mary-Louise Parker (Hedda Tesman), Ana Reeder (Ana Reeder), Peter Stormare (Peter Stormare), Paul Sparks (Ejlert Lovborg)
  Set Design: Hildegard Bechtler
  Costume Design: Ann Roth
  Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
  Sound Design: John Gromada
  Original Music: PJ Harvey
  Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission
  Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street
  (212) 719 – 1300
  Tickets ($66.50 - $111.50)
  Performances: Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 PM with Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 PM
 From 1/06/09; opening 1/25/09; closing 3/29/09
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on preview performance 01/24/09

In the world of technology we have the killer app. In the theater, we have the killer role for actors, a character psychologically nuanced enough for rich and varied interpretation, intriguing enough to draw in audiences year after year. Heading the list of these killer roles are Hamlet, Macbeth and his lady of the bloody hands, Medea . . .and, yes, Hedda Gabler.

This female character took Ibsen into psychological territory"to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies." Hedda was said to be inspired by Emilie Bardach, an 18-year-old young Austrian who, having been greatly influenced by the famous playwright, defined herself as a "new" woman, an"Ibsen woman." Through conversations (discreet, not romantic) and correspondence, she revealed her preference for other women's husbands rather than a marriage of her own and the tendency to allow herself to be bored rather than to use her talents for music and painting. Though he once wrote her "you and the Christmas season do not quite go together," she fired his imagination as the prototype for Hedda as well as several other characters. There's no record of her reaction when he sent her a copy of Hedda Gabler as a Christmas gift.

Since it's first performance in Munich (with Ibsen in the audience), Hedda has been staged here, there and everywhere. Given its global reach, it would hardly be exaggerating to say there's at least one Hedda playing somewhere each year.

The 18 New York productions so far have featured theatrical legends like Mrs. Fiske (1904), the Russian stage and film actress Alla Nazimova (in 1906, 1918 and 1936), opera star turned actress Blanche Yurka (1929), and Claire Bloom (1971). Eva Le Gallienne, one of the most lauded Heddas translated and adapted it. The list of well-known contemporary actors who've taken on the pistol-packing malcontent include Cate Blanchett, Annette Bening and Eve Best

For today's audiences the most interesting name in the last Roundabout production (1994 in its Criterion Center home) is not Kelly McGillis who played the lead but Laura Linney who was Thea Elvsted. This was also the first Broadway billing of Hedda by her maiden rather than her married name—a sensible and overdue shift, considering what Ibsen had to say about his choice of a title: "My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda, as a personality, is to be regarded rather as her father's daughter than as her husband's wife."

In 2001, audiences had a chance to see two Hedda's: On Broadway with Kate Burton and Off-Broadway with a less well-known but excellent Blake Lindsley as part of the sadly defunct Century Center's 12-play Ibsen cycle.

Critics have not always been kind to Hedda. When Eleonora Duse played Hedda in London a then leading critic Max Beerbohm was most impressed with the performance given by the prompter: "While Signora Duse walked through her part, the prompter threw himself into it with a will." On the other hand, Eva Le Gallienne's performance was said to rank alongside Judith Anderson's Medea.

Charles Marowitz did a very free free adaptation of Ibsen's text over 25 years ago which one critic found so sexually potent that he renamed it Hedda Gobbler. Since 2002, we've seen three radically altered Heddas. The highest profile one was directed by Ivan van Hov, a specialist in deconstructing classic texts. As the Roundabout is mounting Christopher Shinn's new adaptation, the Mauckingbird Theatre Company in Philadelphia is presenting Jennie Eisenhower's take on Hedda as a lesbian (see our Philadelphia critic's review). These radically altered texts may not be the ideal introduction to Ibsen's play. Becoming sufficiently acquainted with a classic play to appreciate a drastically re-imagined version is a little like learning to knit or crochet--you should be familiar with the basic stitches to give yourself a foundation for moving in a less traditional direction. Having seen my share of traditional Heddas and enjoy Elizabeth Marvel's Hedda as directed by Ivo van Hove and Les Freres Corbusier's wildly inventive Heddatron. (Interestingly, the cutting edge van Hove production at New York Theater Workshop had Anna Reeder play the gullible Mrs. Thea Elvsted, as she currently does on Broadway) My favorite off-beat version was Robert Prior's all male Speed Hedda which managed to be deliciously over the top and yet remain remarkably true to Ibsen's text.

Served straight up, straight up with a twist or with the twist strong enough to make purists choke, Hedda Gabler remains the equivalent of that killer app or, I should say the killer opp that allows yet another actor to make this capricious anti-heroine live on stage once again.

For more about Ibsen, including links to all the Hedda Gabler productions we've reviewed, see our new Ibsen Backgrounder.

And Now, My Dissenting View About Mary-Louise Parker's Hedda

Simon Saltzman and I agree too often to turn our paired coverage of a show into one of those he said/she said affairs. But in this instance, we're not on the same page.

Mary-Louis Parker has been one of my favorite actors ever since she demonstrated her versatility by convincingly handling a wide range of ages in Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive. I'm not a fan of sit-coms but, because she was in it, I even watched a few episodes of Weeds. I anticiapted a quirky and different Hedda from Parker. What I didn't expect was to feel let down by a willfully flat delivery that too often has the audience burst into laughter and too rarely engages on an emotional level.

My disagreement with Simon's appraisal of her performance extends to the husband (Michael Cerveris) and to Christopher Shinn's adaptation. The fact that it's neither true Ibsen or truly innovative isn't helped by Ian Rickman's surprisingly unsmooth, and at times weird, directorial choices (okay, so Simon and I also didn't quite agree on Rickman's direction of The Seagull- which was fine with me). The trouble with that mirror canopied sofabed is not just that it seems there mainly to announce and underscore the production's determined but misguided newness, but that it replaces the portrait of General Gabler which better explains Hedda's disastrous gun play than all of Rickson's newfangled touches.

Still, I agree with Simon 100% that Parker is a terrific looking Hedda who does full justice to Ann Roth's smashing costumes. And so, since this desperately discontented housewife is such an iconic character, you'll want to see for yourself whether Parker specifically and this production generally fall or soar for you. Love it or hate it, Ibsen aficionados won't want to miss it.

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