Reviewed by Miriam F. d'Amato
Jon Robin Baitz's adaptation of Henrick Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler," at the Huntington Theatre now through January 28, has some pleasant surprises and some unpleasant ones. Baitz's adaptation is one of the pleasant ones, since this viewer was apprehensive about his statement, in an earlier published interview, that he found some comedic moments in the play. In the program note, he clarifies this vision: "in its vast range, there is a fatalistic delirium that makes Hedda Gabler almost comic at times."
Baitz used a new literal translation of Hedda and made a pretty good job of it, although he reduced Ibsen's interesting exposition to a few lines here and there, and sometimes these were thrown away or too elliptical to communicate much meaning. For example, Hedda's first mention of "vine leaves in his hair," referring to Eilert Lovborg, was startling rather than illuminating.
The original music composed by Peter Golub was also a plus, never intrusive and always enriching. All the production values were excellent. Alexander Dodge's scenery was magnificent, making the Tesman house spacious and elegant, so that the stage itself seemed wider, taller, and deeper. Michael Krass's costumes, except for Hedda's negligee in the first act, were attractive. Interestingly, the men's costumes-Brack's suave suits, Tesman's casual outfits, and Lovborg's slightly worn evening dress--were particularly appropriate their characters.
Hedda Gabler is the magnet and the focus of the play. A beautiful, intelligent, passionate woman, she wants an exciting life but is unwilling to lose her reputation as General Gabler's daughter and the power that came with it. Thus, she had refused an alliance with the erratic genius Eilert Lovborg and finally settled for marriage to pedantic George Tesman, who is enchanted by her but cannot understand her. No one realizes how deeply thwarted and distorted she has become because of the provincial life she has chained herself to, not even Hedda herself, who characterizes herself as "bored, bored, bored." Tesman, his Aunt Julia, her friend Thea Elvsted, and, at the beginning, Judge Brack, feed her desire-or, more specifically, her need-to dominate, but this isn't enough to satisfy her. She is still desperate for a meaningful life although she can't make one for herself. When she realizes that she is not the irreplaceable inspiration for Lovborg, her "demon" drives her to destroy him, and, when she realizes she will now be under the power of Judge Brack she destroys herself.
Some of the casting was also a pleasant surprise. Michael Emerson as George Tesman and Jennifer Van Dyck as Thea made these two characters authentic-not an easy task. Tesman, pedantic, unoriginal, affectionate, and unworldly, was realized in every dimension by Emerson. You can't love Tesman, but, in this production, you can understand him. Van Dyck, playing the often thankless part of a sweet innocent, invested Thea with passion and intelligence, so we believe she would take the enormous step of leaving her husband and devoting herself to Lovborg. Thea cannot control Hedda, nor can she understand her, but Van Dyck gave her an integrity that makes the end of the play-the restoration of Elvborg's masterful work--believable. Angela Thornton's Aunt Julia had a dignity and a sweetness that emphasized both Hedda's and George's attitudes toward her and the honesty she represents.
Unfortunately, Kate Burton as Hedda never reached her character's depths. She was petulant, not bitter, and wisecracking, not acid. When she confesses to Judge Brack that she deliberately insulted Aunt Julia's hat, he responds , "Why did you do it?" Her answer, "I can't help it," was a comic reading of the line and drew a laugh from the audience. Instead of pacing like a caged lioness, Burton fidgeted, moving chairs, pouring tea, flouncing into the chaise longue, and opening and closing the floor-to-ceiling drapes, at one point, wrapping herself in one of them and posing. Her contempt for Thea is schoolgirlish, and when she speaks of the relationship between Thea and Lovborg, she also gives her lines a comic emphasis. This is not the "delirium" that Baitz saw in the play. And unfortunately, Burton, lovely as she is, simply doesn't project the sexuality that is an important part of Hedda's passion.
Nor does Lovborg, played by David Lansbury, project the charisma that aroused and arouses Hedda. Lansbury looks the part, giving the effect of what we used to call hippies even in his period costume, but he is simply not heroic enough to carry it off. Lansbury is more boyish, even when drunk, than manly; it's easier to understand why he and Thea were "comrades" than why Hedda sees him "with vine leaves in his hair." At one point, when he and Hedda are seated next to each other on a low bench, he suddenly reaches out, pulls at the neck of her dress, and looks down into it, a childish and vulgar action that offends us more than it does Hedda.
Nor is Harris Yulin's Judge Brack a man with carefully controlled passions and quiet menace. His proposal of a "triangle," his invitations to his stag party, his detailing of the death of Lovborg, and his final achievement of getting Hedda in his power-all are delivered in the same polite, social tone. Sometimes, indeed, Yulin was difficult to hear at all.
The tension among these three --- Hedda, Lovborg, and Brack --- which contrasts so strongly with Tesman, Mrs. Elvsted, and Miss Tesman simply didn't exist. Now, why? Did Director Nicholas Martin miss it or misunderstand it? Or did he think it was too subtle for a modern audience and just dismiss it? Most of the tension was nervousness. It was expressed by people continually handling props: moving chairs, changing their seats for no apparent reason, moving vases of flowers, opening and closing and otherwise playing with the glass curtains and the drapes, slamming doors, pouring tea. The device of marking scene changes by having Berta, in a dim light, remove and set up props became repetitious and annoying.
Directing, as someone said, is more than keeping people from bumping into each other. And busyness on stage is not stage business; it distracts from rather than emphasizes the drama, but Martin just can't let well enough alone. In the last scene, when the shot is fired offstage behind the magnificent drawing room double doors, Judge Brack delivers the final, telling summation: "But people don't do such things!" Nothing else is needed, but Martin has the doors opened and Hedda's body dragged onstage and slumped gracelessly against the wall. Not only is this unnecessary, but it is a change of focus that detracts and distracts. Sometimes it's best for a director to keep out of the play and let the audience take over.
If you don't know the play, as my companion did not, you might be confused, as he was unless you read it first.. If you do know it, you will enjoy comparing Baitz's adaptation with Ibsen's original and pondering the challenges "Hedda Gabler" presents to actors, director, and audience.