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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 24,

2001 edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Broadway: `Hedda Gabler’

Hedda Gabler is one of the most enigmatic and

psychologically

intriguing heroines to ever dominate and propel a major work of

dramatic

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,

daughter

of actor Richard Burton, now delivers a powerful performance.

Yes, there are many ways to interpret Ibsen’s

now-classic

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

ability

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

apparent

by her fits of skittishness as well as her feigned affection for

George

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

impetuous

genius Eilert Lovborg (David Lansbury).

"Bored, bored, bored" by the thought of living a dutiful

provincial

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

subtly

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

particular

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

Cellario,

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

Theatre

Festival and Bay Street Theatre this past summer. It is a credit to

everyone involved. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Hedda Gabler, Ambassador Theater, 219 West 49th Street.

$30 to $70. Tele-Charge: 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.


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