Ibsen’s 1891 “Hedda Gabler” is indisputably one of the great masterpieces of world drama. Shocking in its day, it is especially notable for having a woman as the central character, whose exercise of independent agency more-or-less controls the outcome. It is a very serious play, even, perhaps, melodramatic by today’s standards, and it ends sadly.
Director Yury Urnov’s decision to present this hoary masterpiece of early realism as a riotously funny comedy, is, well, unexpected and rather shocking. It is also brilliant, howlingly funny, and surprisingly true to Ibsen’s vision, in spite of having been significantly pared down. This production of a new translation by Paul Walsh is a wonderful example of Cutting Ball’s commitment to new and different presentations of plays considered (in their day) to be avant garde.
Audience members acquainted with Ibsen will either turn away in shock and disgust or howl with delight. Newcomers to Ibsen, expecting a classic drama, may be puzzled, but will certainly be entertained. Count me with the delighted howlers.
Hedda Gabler (played brilliantly by Britney Frazier), daughter of General Gabler and new wife of a drearily pedantic academic, is a conventionally attractive young woman. To her tone-deaf household (husband, husband’s aunt, solicitous neighbor), she seems typically happy in her role as young newlywed. Somehow, they miss the significance of her fondness for her father’s pistols and her penchant for smoking cigars. They will learn.
When her former lover, the alcoholic ne’er-do-well academic Ejlert Løvberg (Kunal Prasad), shows up sober, having written a brilliant book that threatens the career advancement of her husband, the bored Hedda starts playing dangerous games.
This is serious stuff and critics have taken it seriously for more than a century. Director Yury Urnov, in a helpful press release, does an excellent job of summarizing the play’s impact:
It was a big deal for Ibsen to make this woman the central character in the play, and, frankly, it’s still a big deal. Ibsen’s genius was to conceive her not just as any other figure of vengeance but as a kind of glamorous Frankenstein produced by a patriarchal society. She offers a symmetrical response to a world of inequities that are taken for granted.
Clearly, Urnov respects the play, so why the comedic treatment? I can’t read his mind of course, but it might be said that, a century after its premiere, the characters of “Hedda Gabler,” for all of Ibsen’s vaunted psychological insight, may be familiar enough types today as to seem a bit like cardboard figures. Most directors (all that I know of) respond to this reality by trying to recreate the fullness of Ibsen’s psychological insight by stressing the period aspects of the play, delving deeply into the realism, and rounding out the seemingly cardboard characters with excellent conventional acting. All too often, the result is to make the pistol-shooting, cigar chomping, amoral, and devastating Hedda Gabler into a stuffy museum piece that is impressive but still . . . well . . . kind of boring.
Urnov invigorates Ibsen by moving in the opposite direction. If these characters seem like cardboard puppets in a morality play, why not go all the way with that? Instead of realism, we get a symbolic set that emphasizes the prison-like aspects of Hedda’s experience. The pedantic academic (Jorgen Tesman, played by Francisco Arcila) is played straight up as a foolish clown and the sleazy neighbor, Commissioner Brack (Steve Thomas), who tries to seduce Hedda, is as upfront and funny in his questionable motives as Groucho Marx. The crowning comic gem is Kunal Prasad’s send up of the romantic ideal, Eljert Løvborg. Dressed in overalls and carrying a pitchfork, he is a romantic giant of a poet contrasted with a boring midget of a pedant.
In spite of the humorous treatment, which stops at nothing, even including ridiculous (but effective) musical commentary drawn from popular song and using Bob Fosse-esque clowns to accomplish the set changes, this production does not distort Ibsen’s intent or his profound psychological and sociological insight.
On the contrary: this is a thoroughly enlightening Hedda Gabler that brings this great character, pistols ablaze, into the 21st century. All the Freudian implications, submerged but present in the original Ibsen, are exposed here for comic effect and increased insight. Seeing it is like seeing the characters of “Hedda Gabler” performing in their underwear.
The cast is damn near perfect, and each member of the ensemble gives an award-worthy performance, including Heidi Carlsen in the relatively small role of Tesman’s Aunt Juliane, Carla Pauli as Løvborg’s mistress, and Michelle Drexler as a household servant. Likewise for Jacquelyn Scott’s set, Alina Bokovikova’s costumes, Hamilton Guillén’s lights, and the sound design of Cliff Caruthers.
“Hedda Gabler” plays at The EXIT on Taylor through February 26, 2017. For further information, click here.
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“Hedda Gabler” by Henri Ibsen, translated by Paul Walsh. Director: Yury Urnov. Scenic designer: Jacquelyn Scott. Lighting designer: Hamilton Guillén. Sound Designer: Cliff Caruthers. Costume Designer: Alina Bokovikova.
Hedda Gabler: Britney Frazier. Jorgen Tesman: Francisco Arcila. Juliane Tesman: Heidi Carlson. Thea Elstead: Carla Pauli Ejlert Løvborg: Kunal Prasad. Commissioner Barack: Steve Thomas. Bertie: Michelle Drexel.