Staff Players' latest tickles Ibsen's funny bone.
Thursday, February 1, 2001
The pairing of the words "Ibsen" and "comedy" doesn''t occur often in the same sentence, and, if Marcia Hovick, director of the Staff Players'' current production of Hedda Gabler has anything to say about it, that''s a wrong soon righted. Just realizing that all comedy holds hands with tragedy, Hovick''s staging of Ibsen''s most-produced play delivers--for the most part--both the drama we are accustomed to in Ibsen and a surprising sense of humor that lurks between the play''s lines.
Arguably, modern drama began with Henrik Ibsen. Although almost a century has passed since his death in 1906, his plays have lost none of their psychological relevance. The story of an intense, rebellious woman living in a totally male-dominated society, Hedda Gabler still resonates with today''s audiences. That being said, Hedda Gabler was not so easy to swallow for audiences in 1890.
The play was met with almost universal scorn at its debut, with one period critic calling it "a base escape of sewage gas," while another denounced the character of Hedda herself as "a crawl with the foulest passions of humanity." While in today''s climate, those quotes might be part of the ad campaign promoting the play, late 19th century theatergoers did not purposely expose themselves to the underside of human nature with quite the same alacrity as we do today. (TV''s "Survivor" wasn''t even a gleam in someone''s eye.)
Hedda Gabler is strong medicine. Ibsen, long before many others, observed the destructive results of patriarchal society when an intelligent woman of great energy, imagination and independence is oppressed by propriety. "The truth will out" and, in Hedda''s case, the truth is that she has few avenues into which to channel her prodigious spirit.
Seeking influence, Hedda''s marriage to Tesman is not for love but for a position of respectability from which she can "shape the destiny of men." Her intentions are transfigured into petty and cruel manipulations and romantic illusions of "elegant suicides."
So, the questions remain: How are we to take Hedda? Is she a character without merit? Or does her lowly status as a woman largely excuse her behavior? Just how do we interpret her?
Director Hovick chooses a unique approach to the ambiguities inherent in Hedda Gabler by mining it for more laughs than one might expect. The twist is dicey, but it also works. The audience is caught off guard at the humor--and at its own laughter--and new layers of the play come to the fore.
We must face our eponymous character anew and are forced to reconsider her case. If she is pure evil, why are we laughing?
Hovick has gathered a fine cast for her venture. As Hedda, newcomer Jolie Kobrinsky provides a strong, cool presence and handles the comedy with a subtle touch. Her character comes across at times as more dangerously capricious than truly malevolent. Kobrinsky is less successful emoting Gabler''s mounting frustration and tension. As her world begins to close in around her, we need to see and feel her desperation.
In the final scene with Judge Brack, George Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted, Hedda''s need for escape must become palpable. The moment she turns away from the table where Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted plan to recreate Lovborg''s (Flip Baldwin) lost manuscript, we must see her utter desperation--the inevitability of that gunshot from behind the curtain. Unfortunately, in Kobrinsky''s hands, it seems more like an afterthought and more of denouement than climax. Nevertheless, Kobrinsky''s performance is strong-mannered without being too self-conscious and her performance hints at a bright theatrical future.
As the awkward, cerebral, guileless Tesman, Peter Eberhardt hits the mark with a poignant note. His verbal dexterity is especially suited to classic material and his performance contrasts nicely with Kobrinsky''s ice queen.
Judge Brack, as played by Skip Kadish, is by turns self effacing and predatory. He communicated the judge''s corrupt and lecherous nature quite smoothly without turning him into a complete monster. However, he should be cooler and more insidious in his final scene with Hedda. During his blackmail attempt, he leans over her in a solicitous manner, which dilutes the ominousness of his proposition. A more calculating judge would lend more tension to Hedda''s entrapment and her subsequent actions.
The rest of the cast also acquits itself well. Flip Baldwin does well in the role of Eilert Lovborg, even if his genius is more water than fire. The chemistry between Lovborg and Mrs. Elvsted (Helaine Tregenza) is believable and both actors are well suited to their roles. Neva Hahn is charming as Miss Juliana Tesman, Tesman''s maiden aunt. Hahn knows how to relish the pauses as well as the dialogue. And Tricia Wayne is very effective as the eager to please servant, Bertha.
Hedda Gabler plays Thursday-Saturday 8pm and Sunday 2:30pm at Carmel''s Indoor Forest Theatre, Santa Rita and Mountain View, through Feb. 18.