Ibsen’s Greatest Hit

But Hedda Gabler seems stifled in this production's tiny space.

For some odd reason, the whole time I was watching the Aurora’s production of Hedda Gabler, I couldn’t get Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” out of my mind. To think of Lauper’s chirpy homage to feminine joie de vivre in relation to one of Henrik Ibsen’s darkest heroines whose idea of fun is destroying the lives of those around her is something akin to believing Glenn Close was merely hankerin’ for some good rabbit stew when she boiled the bunny in Fatal Attraction. And yet, I somehow felt Ibsen himself might be rather amused by my choice of theme songs.

Never one to shy away from controversy, the 19th-century playwright suffered the slings and arrows of outraged critics and audiences alike when his works were first produced because they unabashedly dealt with such hot-button topics as pollution (An Enemy of the People), venereal disease (Ghosts), and feminism (A Doll’s House). But it was also such stuff that made him the perfect candidate for international revivals during the 1970s when rad-libbers picked up the mantle of similar causes, with no less than two feature-film versions of A Doll’s House released in 1973 (one starring Claire Bloom, the other Jane Fonda) and two Hedda Gablers (a 1972 British TV incarnation that won raves for Janet Suzman and another–dubbed simply Hedda–that scored a 1975 Academy Award nomination for Glenda Jackson). Even tough guy Steve McQueen jumped on the Ibsen bandwagon to portray the shunned whistleblower in 1977’s Enemy of the People. And yet, for all the complexity of Ibsen’s themes and characters, it is Hedda Gabler that critics still proclaim to be his most paradoxical, and therefore most intriguing, work.

The plot is simple enough: new bride Hedda, whose one great talent is “boring myself to death,” tries to spice things up by manipulating those around her to the cruelest possible ends and, in the process, manages to alienate her jocular husband from his loved ones, torments a sweetly simple childhood friend, causes a clean-and-sober ex-lover to fall off the wagon, and eventually brings about one man’s death. Not too shabby considering it all happens within a 36-hour period. But is Hedda really the ogre her Lizzie Borden approach to life might make her seem to be, is she merely a victim of societal mores that trap her in the roles of wife and mother for which she is obviously unsuited, or does she just wanna have a good time by being mean to people? It is a true testament to Ibsen’s genius that he leaves us guessing even after the final curtain has come down.

In his essay “On the Occasion of Hedda Gabler,” Henry James characterized the play as more “the dramatization of a condition than an action,” and it is on this peg that Aurora director Loy Arcenas hangs his hat. The atmosphere is so thick with subtext it’s almost like another character in the room, the pauses so pregnant you’re afraid if you cough or shuffle your feet you’ll ruin the moment. Unfortunately, this also proves to be a drawback in the Berkeley City Club’s tiny space with the audience on three sides of the actors: you’re often looking at the back of an actor’s head, which masks the face of the person with whom he or she is locking eyes, thereby rendering many audience members outsiders to the unspoken dialogue.

As for his take on the linchpin title role, Arcenas appears to have been inspired by the Archie Bunker bark of “Stifle yourself!”: Stacy Ross (who bears a remarkable resemblance to actress Janet Suzman) is kept at such a low boil that her hunger for some excitement is completely incongruous with her passionless persona, to the point that her final horrifying (or is it inevitable?) action seems anticlimactic. She’s also so charm-free that one wonders why good-guy husband George (pronounced Gay-yorg) would want to marry her in the first place. Still, despite all the limitations imposed by her director, Ross is such a commanding presence that I kept wondering what she’d be like if actually allowed to blow off a wee bit of steam.

Supporting players such as Julian López-Morillas (whose jovial approach to Judge Brack wonderfully belies the character’s insidious nature), Beth Donohue (giving new meaning to the word naïve as Thea Elvsted), and Elizabeth Benedict (a marvel in the thankless role of George’s aunt), all turn in strong performances as well, although I’d prefer to see them unbridled from Arcenas’ shackles.

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