ACCOMPLISHED ACTORS: Dover-Pearl and Finn.
Hedda, Hedda, when will you ever learn? And what will that be when you do? Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler has been stunning audiences since 1890 and its badly received first performance in Germany. Productions have portrayed her as everything from a noble but confused “female Hamlet” to a feminist victim to a hand-rubbing villainess.
The Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium is presenting quite a contemporary take on the woman at the Pell Chafee Performance Center (through March 16), directed by Birgitta Victorson, with Crystal Finn as the irretrievably frustrated newlywed.
As the play opens, Hedda and husband George Tesman (Danny Mefford) have just returned from a honeymoon he couldn’t afford to a house he can afford even less. His spinster Aunt Julie (Diana Buirski) has even taken out a mortgage to purchase its furniture. Tesman, a dusty academic, is relying on a university appointment to keep Hedda in such style. Already feeling confined, Hedda acts out in meanness, humiliating Julie by pretending to mistake her gaudy new hat for that of the servant (Emily Young).
This production certainly has made Hedda understandable in contemporary terms. In moments that sometimes work and sometimes go over the top, this Hedda comes across, in passages depicting her interior rage, as a headbanging punk rocker dying to claw out of the carapace of a dignified Norwegian housewife.
A microphone is set up at the front of the stage, to which our grrrl can step, isolated by a spotlight, and rend her heart to original music by Eddie Carlson with lyrics by Ken Prestinizi. Separated by pace and lighting from the rest of the play’s iconic realism, these few moments succeed to the point where we could accept even more of them as we empathize with her inner emotional life.
It’s when Hedda’s feral rage erupts into the realistic scenes that this production fails, dissipating the tension between repression and socially permitted action. (Similarly, at one late point, her quite proper husband and another woman kiss, casually but sensually, which not only would never happen then but also doesn’t need to — that possible eventuality is already implicit in the text.)
Ibsen didn’t want to make Hedda a decent person, like Nora in his earlier A Doll’s House, all the better to get audiences to understand and sympathize with the social plight of women of her milieu, not merely with a particular woman. So the stress on Hedda as a manipulating villain in this production doesn’t sugarcoat her character, and Finn provides plenty of personality to keep us interested in an antiheroic central figure.
The opening scenes set up things nicely. Paying respects is Tesman’s friend Judge Brack (Tom Schwans). Before long and quite seamlessly, Ibsen has the bachelor make clear to Hedda, his former target of romance, that instead of marriage he prefers “triangular arrangements,” with compliant wives and oblivious husbands. A second visitor is a distressed Thea Elvstead (Morgan Dover-Pearl), a schoolmate Hedda used to torment, who has run away from her husband. She is too unguarded to not reveal that she has run to a lover, Tesman’s academic rival Eilert Lovborg (Jordan Reeves). All is set for Hedda, in excruciating boredom, to exercise her declared desire to control someone’s life — manipulating her husband’s is hardly challenging enough to count.
Of course, Hedda has that particular ambition because her own life is so circumscribed. Not only did she settle for a boring if doting suitor only because he had the best financial prospects, but she also admits to a fear of society’s disapproval.
The acting here doesn’t disappoint, from Young’s harried servant through Finn’s alternately icy and ostensibly thawing Hedda. As Tesman, Mefford provides a strength of character that keeps the man from appearing foolish, just as Buirski rescues Aunt Julie with a well-timed smattering of dignity. Dover-Pearl as hapless romantic Thea makes plausible her self-destructiveness. Reeves, convincing as reformed alcoholic Lovborg, chooses to sail close to the safety of shore although Ibsen’s chart allows ranging wider, into a naïve vulnerability past his self-deception.
These conservatory productions are the best theater bargain in town (alongside Trinity Rep’s $15 rush seats). And they can be exciting, because chances can be taken that would never be risked on the Trinity main stages. When some elements don’t quite work, as here, we get an education about that along with the students.