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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 24,
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On Broadway: `Hedda Gabler’
Hedda Gabler is one of the most enigmatic and
intriguing heroines to ever dominate and propel a major work of
literature. The title character in Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 classic has
both attracted and confounded many of the 20th century’s most daring
actresses. The role asks of those who dare to take the challenge to
not only be a hard-hearted, devious, deceitful, and even bloodthirsty
manipulator, but also a woman of great strength, the daughter of the
respected and socially prominent General Gabler, desperately trying
to gain control of her destiny. One of the more lauded interpreters
was Eva Le Gallienne, who not only translated and adapted it but also
portrayed the title character in six productions.
In a new staging, Kate Burton creates an astonishingly restless and
riveting Hedda — one who is willing to recklessly ride the waves
of her own fears, whether it be towards the rocks of destruction,
or for her own self-centered amusement. After seasons of roles that
generally only offered a promise of things to come, Kate Burton,
of actor Richard Burton, now delivers a powerful performance.
Yes, there are many ways to interpret Ibsen’s
role. But to Burton’s credit, we judge Hedda, not as evil or deranged,
but as an aristocratic Victorian with a ferocious need to test her
strengths and challenge her emotional insecurities in a suffocating
society. Empowered by a fine new translation by playwright Jon Robin
Baitz, and splendid direction — executed in a swirl of circulating
action — by Nicholas Martin, Burton gives a must-see portrayal.
It is flawlessly punctuated with both shrill, unseemly outbursts of
laughter, and yet seethes with anguished, repressed desires. Our
to hear every word she says is another asset to be noted.
A grand mood is set by Peter Golub’s wonderfully original music, and
the vastness and colorless elegance of the Tesman house, created by
designer Alexander Dodge. Hedda’s unrest there becomes quickly
by her fits of skittishness as well as her feigned affection for
Tesman (Michael Emerson), her clueless scholarly husband. Having just
returned fresh from their honeymoon, Hedda is already conflicted by
the reasons she chose Tesman over the charismatic, unstable, and
genius Eilert Lovborg (David Lansbury).
"Bored, bored, bored" by the thought of living a dutiful
life, and without any hope of finding a release for her frustrations,
she takes to pulling the strings of others around her. When Mrs. Thea
Elvsted (Princeton’s own Jennifer Van Dyck), a former girl friend
and rival confides that she has left her husband, and is in love with
Lovborg, Hedda’s former lover, Hedda’s jealousy provokes her into
action to take revenge and ruin him. Although her plan succeeds, it
also backfires when she finds that it has brought Tesman and Thea
together and that she has come under the power of the clever and
seductive Judge Brack (Harris Yulin).
To both Baitz’ translation and Martin’s direction goes a lot of the
credit for making sure that Ibsen’s ironies and subtleties are not
lost or diminished in the mounting. In accord, the entire cast has
found formidable ways to balance the classicism of the text with the
contemporary approach to their vividly addressed characters. While
the action revolves around Burton, as the intelligent woman who spins
out of control in a series of recklessly foolish moves, the others,
as pawns, are also making indelible impressions. Emerson offers an
unusual twist to his role as the Hedda-bedazzled academic, instantly
masking his questionable masculinity and insecure future in blind
adoration not only for Hedda, but also for his devoted Aunt Julia
(played by Angela Thornton).
Lansbury takes Lovborg’s unbridled passions to the limit, in
in the scene in which his amorous advances toward Hedda, that include
a brazen peak at her cleavage, are amusingly concealed as they leaf
through a photo album. Yulin is excellent as the discreetly lecherous
Judge. Van Dyke shines as the Lovborg-intoxicated Mrs. Elvsted who
may have her own secreted ways to deal with a crisis. Even Maria
as Berta, the long-time family maid and Claire Lautier, as a servant,
contribute to the beautifully sustained textures of life in near the
turn of the 20th century Norway.
Michael Kass’s costumes, noticeably Hedda’s floor-sweeping peignoir,
and Kevin Adam’s dazzling shadows-on-the-wall lighting are worthy
of awards. Perhaps it can’t be done better, but the final moment of
the play, a freeze if you will, after the gun shot is heard off-stage,
when Hedda’s body is exposed draped across the piano, and the Judge
says "But people just don’t do such things," doesn’t have
the climactic punch one might expect. However, I suspect that Ibsen,
known as the "father of modern drama" would still be pleased
with this production, that had its premiere at the Williamstown
Festival and Bay Street Theatre this past summer. It is a credit to
everyone involved. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.
— Simon Saltzman
$30 to $70. Tele-Charge: 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200
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