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A CurtainUp Review
Hedda Gabler

She should use a woman's name. She still goes around in men's clothes It's exclusively male. That's a boundary you've traversed quite effectively.
Hedda Gabler
Jennie Eisenhower (left) & Sarah Sanford (right)
(Photo: Jill McCorkel)
There have been many memorable Heddas, among them Cate Blanchett, whose Hedda thrashed around at BAM a couple of years ago. I remember Glenda Jackson in the role in the 70s, around the time when local actress Carla Belver delivered a quintessential and inimitable Hedda at the Villanova Theater. Mary Louise Parker is currently handling the role in NYC in Christopher Shinn's adaptation for Roundabout (watch for Curtainup's review and Elyse Sommer's accompanying essay, The Many Faces of Hedda)

Now Jennie Eisenhower does a contained, detailed job as the dissatisfied yet convention-bound wife in this lesbian adaptation by Caroline Kava for Mauckingbird Theatre Company. Hedda, a lightweight, can't tolerate that others manage to break free of their restraints to get what they want, while she, worried about what people may think, fails to act. But she finds her métier in doing damage to others' lives.

On edge throughout, Jennie's Hedda flits across an agitated surface, rather than intimate an inexplicable and unfathomable Scandinavian depth. She is sharp and entertaining to watch, although the brat would best be merged with the aristocrat to produce less pique and more imperiousness.

The spoiled, self absorbed daughter of a general, Hedda has no particular direction but wants to live large, free of constraint. We don't get much of a feel here for her admiration of her father, and there's no hovering sense of the general, despite the traditional display of his portrait, and of course, his pistols. Hedda's frustration at marrying the likes of academic George Tesman is made amusingly clear by Jennie Eisenhower, and Dito van Reigersberg of Pig Iron, as her fond and unfortunate husband, clearly revels in playing the fool.

Sarah Sanford's Eilert Lovborg could actually pass for a young man. It's quite remarkable— I barely recognized her from her recent role in Lantern's Government Inspector. Judging just by her look and the uncanny demeanor of her character, this could easily be mistaken for a simple case of gender-blind casting; however, the adaptation makes it perfectly clear that Eilert is a woman.

I am interested in addressing two points in this production that impact on the character Hedda and change the play's dynamic in interesting ways.

First, there's the whole new dimension of adapter Kava's key gender change. Hedda's relationship with Eilert Lovborg remains essentially the same as if Eilert were male. The lesbian connection itself does not change the basic action of the play. But by changing the character of Eilert to a woman, Kava has accomplished something else that makes Hedda's life even more intolerable to her. Hedda already is envious of the seemingly conventional Thea (Jessica DalCanton), to whom she has always felt superior. But Thea has become intrinsic to Eilert Lovborg's work, a fact which is completely unacceptable to Hedda. Worse, she has found the guts to leave her husband and children, quietly managing to become a "new" woman of the turn of the nineteenth century. Thea's emancipation is terrible enough for Hedda, who is frozen in failure. But Lovborg being a woman doubles up the hit, for Eilert is a brilliant and accomplished woman whose voice is being heard. The fact that two women she knows have emerged, even as she has stagnated without even so much as a horse to ride is more than Hedda can bear.

The introduction of a second successful woman has managed to make her situation just about impossible. If the last body blow —to be administered by Judge Brack— falls into place as prescribed, it will give Hedda more than enough ammo to justify doing herself in.

However, and this is the second point I want to make, the final blow must render life intolerable, otherwise the play reaches its conclusion only by decree of the playwright. Brack's threat has to be something we can believe in.

Here the casting of cute and mild mannered Matthew Lorenz as the unscrupulous Judge Brack presents a problem. A young and eager Judge Brack doesn't quite accomplish the icky, threatening insinuation that a standard-interpretation, less likable and accessible Brack can. While there is already a surfeit of free-floating anxiety, a new and real sense of menace must build up with Brack.

If Hedda is to fall victim to her own malicious acts and meet the demands of the plot, the judge's proposition has to represent an untenable position. But the young Brack lends a different feel entirely. He and Hedda are like young pals having fun. She flirts. Maybe she's bi. Given the boredom and embarrassment she has endured, Hedda might not mind succumbing to Brack's not exactly unwelcome attentions. A woman with no scruples and a despised husband might take up an offer of an extended secret dalliance from an attractive man, even he has proposed the deal to buy his silence about what he knows. There are worse fates. She might consider life tolerable, if just to get some of her own back. Such an idea would never even occur with an appropriately odious and pressuring Brack.

So while Ibsen's beautifully laid checkmate gains strength from the gender twist, the choice to introduce an appealing Brack works against a tidy endgame. If it weren't for the double hit delivered to Hedda by the two women, the blackmail actually might not have been enough to tip the scales.

A few quibbles: Ibsen calls for a spacious drawing room, but large can't be managed on the little second floor stage at the Adrienne Theater. It does make a difference. Hedda Gabler plays differently in such an intimate theater —-too up close and personal, too naturalistic, no expanse to help conjure the coldness. It could use some distance.

A few smaller quibbles: The skimpy notes brought in for a prospective long manuscript project wouldn't be sufficient to last an evening, much less a few months. A stuffed portmanteau, at the least, would be required to sustain such an undertaking. Finally, Kristen O'Rourke as the maid seems to be acting in a different play in a different style as she minces around peculiarly, reminiscent of Edith Bunker. I don't know what the director was thinking, but the physical abstraction doesn't work paired with Cheryl Williams's straight up approach to Tesman's aunt.

Mauckingbird's careful little production of the great Ibsen's famous work, carefully adapted by Caroline Kava and directed by Peter Reynolds, manages to accomplish intriguing things by taking a look from a different vantage point, thereby bravely opening out the play for speculation, conversation, new arguments, and tantalizing what-ifs.

Editor's Note: For more about Ibsen and links to reviews of other productions of Hedda Gabler, including the above mentioned new Broadway production, see our Ibsen Backgrounder.

Hedda Gabler
by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Caroline Kava
Directed by Peter Reynolds

Performed by the Mauckingbird Theatre Company
Cast: Cheryl Williams, Kristen O'Rourke, Dito van Reigersberg, Jennie Eisenhower, Jessica DalCanton, Matthew Lorenz, Sarah Sanford
Set Design: Cory Palmer
Lighting Design: Maria Shaplin
Costume Design: Marie Anne Chiment
01/10/09- 01/29/09, Opening 01/13/07
Approx 2 hours with one intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 01/15 performance at the Adrienne Theater, Sansom Street.
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