Vanishing Act

A pair of culottes takes center stage in A.C.T.'s Hedda Gabler

Like all great stage heroines, there are countless ways to look at Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. In just the last few years, audiences in this country have experienced tempestuous Heddas (Cate Blanchett), panicky Heddas (Martha Plimpton), neurasthenic Heddas (Annette Bening), and down-to-earth Heddas (Kate Burton). But however actors and directors choose to portray what Henry James called dramatic literature's most "infinitely perverse" female protagonist, the central performance always dominates audiences' and critics' responses to the play. So much so in fact, that it's hard to imagine writing a review of a production of Hedda Gabler without devoting 90 percent of one's words to the star of the show. Mentioning the "female Hamlet" (as she's popularly come to be known) only in passing is roughly equivalent to ignoring a male actor's embodiment of The Dane. To echo the play's closing sentiment: "People don't do such things."

Well, I guess they do now. For A.C.T.'s production of Ibsen's 1890 masterpiece about a strong-willed woman's self-destructive attempts to come to terms with the banalities of married life distinguishes itself in an unlikely fashion: There's just not all that much to say about leading lady René Augesen.

It's not a good thing for an actor to be upstaged by the set. Imposing oil portraits of Augesen's Hedda might dominate Kent Dorsey's scenic design — here she is on horseback, there she is in a black dress, here she is on horseback, albeit in a different pose, again — but the bewildering clash of ideas and visual themes that greet the audience's eye when the curtain rises threatens to draw attention away from Ibsen's heroine. The well-appointed Victorian-era parlor with its thick blue velvet curtains, cherry-colored wood, and prim furnishings suggest the opulence of the Tesman home simply enough: We understand that Hedda's husband, Jorgen Tesman, has gone out of his way to give his new wife the life she desires.

Hedda (René Augesen) and Mrs. Elvsted (Finnerty Steeves) react to shocking news.
Hedda (René Augesen) and Mrs. Elvsted (Finnerty Steeves) react to shocking news.

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Through March 11, Tickets are $17.50-81.50; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org
American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), S.F.

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It's Dorsey's attempt to overlay a metaphorical layer on top of the naturalistic setting that confuses. The scaffolding around the stage represents, perhaps, the unfinished condition of the couple's new home as well as hints at the death that's sure to come. But what about the neon strip lighting? And what about the back wall constructed out of lengths of rope? Is this the noose to match the scaffold? Do the taut vertical cords represent Hedda's highly strung personality? Is there a hidden nautical subtext? I now know from reading director Richard E. T. White's thoughts about the production that the director and designer drew inspiration for the back wall of the set from a woodcut by Norwegian artist and Ibsen contemporary Edward Munch's sister, Inger. The rope is supposed to suggest the spare nature of Ibsen's writing. But without the benefit of reading the background materials, the rope looks like baseless expressionism.

Not only is Augesen's Hedda upstaged by the decor, but we're constantly being distracted by some of the other characters. Take Jack Willis' turn as local heavyweight Commissioner Brack. The guy is supposed to be a sexual predator, who blackmails Hedda into a state of no return. Willis gives a sweeping, larger-than-life performance, all right. But it's hard to believe in Brack's potency — his aspiration to be "the only cock in the hen house" — when he's played by an actor as flamboyantly effete as Willis. The line "I have nothing against the back way" has never taken on such an unexpected meaning. I half expected this Brack to chastise Augesen's Hedda for her poor flower-arranging skills.

Finnerty Steeves' performance as Thea Elvsted, whose decision to leave her husband and follow her lover, the libertine writer Ejlert Lovbog, regardless of the gossip doing so might provoke, similarly serves to overthrow the primacy of the leading role. Steeves plays Thea like an open book: Frank, sweet, and strong, she is everything that Hedda is not. The contrast between the two characters creates great dramatic tension, but comes with consequences that threaten to tip the balance of the play: Our sympathies lie with the brave yet ordinary Thea instead of her cowardly but fascinating rival. As a result, one is left wondering if the title of the play shouldn't be changed from "Hedda Gabler" to "Thea Elvsted."

Martha Plimpton, who gave a much-admired performance as Hedda at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre a few years ago, once said of Ibsen's drama in an interview for American Theatre Magazine, "This play has always suffered from title-character syndrome. It's called Hedda Gabler, but it's not about Hedda. It's not driven by her; she's not the catalyst for anything. It's all the other people around her who drive the play." This certainly seems to be the case at A.C.T.: The most compelling things about Augesen's nervy-passive Hedda are her voluminous culottes, that flare, concertinalike to reveal broad, Elvis-in-Vegas-era side-panels of carefully pressed pleats every time the actor moves. When the pleats fan out, it's like watching a frill-necked lizard on the defensive.

Those culottes end up telling us more about the character's inner life than the actor who wears them. If there's anything "infinitely perverse" about Augesen's Hedda, it's her inability to steal the show.

 
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