Yury Urnov delivers one clear message in his direction of Hedda Gabler at Cutting Ball Theater: Purists be damned! If you can accept the complete tonal departure from any traditional understanding of Henrik Ibsen’s play, you’ll enjoy the briskly paced production. But if you question his basic understanding of the material, you’re left asking “Why did he drain out what was tragic about the story?” Urnov’s answers will satisfy an impatient audience who can’t wait to get back online after the lights go dim. For anyone else hoping for something bleaker, contemplative, and affecting, those qualities are harder to find.
Hedda Gabler herself is a creature of the 19th century. Her literary sisters are Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina: intelligent women, heroines of their own stories, who contend with the restrictive rules of patriarchal societies, and lose. It’s the history of this loss, strictly female, that Urnov doesn’t want to contend with, and it’s a shame. At this moment in time, there isn’t a better opportunity artistically to look at male energies intent on controlling women’s minds, bodies, and souls.
No one would describe Hedda as likable, but that’s why actresses still want to play her 100 years after Ibsen captured her character on the page. Audiences continue to engage with her story, to examine again and again her misprision: Why on earth does she marry the unemployed academic Jorgen Tesman? Before she even appears on stage, one reason for her particularity, her manipulative behavior, and froideur, is spelled out in the first scene. Her difference and dislocation come from her economic class.
Acting as an apologist, Tesman’s Aunt Juliane reminds the servant Berte of Hedda’s prominent family background: “She’s General Gabler’s daughter. She was used to being spoiled when her father was alive.”
Despite being newly married as the play begins, Ibsen titles it after her maiden name, where her true identity resides. She never makes the psychological transition from being highborn as Hedda Gabler to marrying down into the middle class to become Hedda Tesman.
Ibsen — alongside Hardy, Flaubert and Tolstoy — wrote during an era when her unspoken dilemma was clearly understood by his contemporaries. Hedda is caught between her father’s estate, where there is either no inheritance or no (female) right to it, and choosing to marry a man whom she doesn’t love in order to retain some status in society. Urnov mistakenly writes in a program note about Ibsen’s intentions, “His compassion towards his own characters is minimal — just enough to keep the play from dissolving into pure satire…” Ibsen couldn’t have written this play without having a profound sense of sympathy for Hedda’s plight. It’s Urnov who sends the play in a satirical direction.
The director seems to have forgotten that, in the 19th century, a woman in her position couldn’t just pack her bags, divorce a dud husband, and roll into some new town with her resume in tow. Hedda, like the sheltered Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, also might have queried, “What is a weekend?” It’s his conception of her here that falls short rather than Britney Frazier’s mighty inhabitation of Hedda or Ibsen’s lack of compassion for her.
Frazier makes a commanding entrance but begins her characterization with petulant line readings. As she settled into Hedda’s unhappiness, the actress became more confident in the role, filling her in with sharply drawn emotional edges. But Frazier was fighting against two enemies. A director who insisted that her character was powerful in a world where, in fact, she wasn’t. And a supporting cast of male actors who, from time to time, couldn’t keep a straight face.
There was an adolescent, inside joke amongst the cast about the pronunciation of the characters’ Norwegian names. For example, every time someone enunciated the name of Hedda’s ex-lover, Ejlert Lovborg, the actor would pause to either gauge the audience’s or a fellow actor’s reaction, or buy time to suppress a smirk. This couldn’t have gone unnoticed in rehearsals so it must have been condoned by the director. If this had been an improv sketch then the jollity would have made sense. Instead, it left Frazier standing on stage unsupported in Hedda’s oncoming tragedy.
Her greatest support, however, came from the costume designer Alina Bokovikova, who dressed her like a harvest goddess in diaphanous fabrics, flowing with gorgeous rows of flowers and moss. Bokovikova honored Hedda’s wild nature and Frazier’s ability to glide around the stage like a dancer skilled in the art of seduction. In this staging, someone came up with the idea that the main characters should hold a garden tool as a symbolic prop. Jorgen Tesman holds shears, Juliane Tesman a claw, Ejlert Lovborg carries a long-handled rake. Everyone is hellbent on defiling the garden that Hedda represents.
If you believe those 19th-century tropes are outdated, the ones about women and their imperiled rights, then this updated edition of Hedda Gabler will suit you fine. If you had your eye on the March for Life rally in Washington D.C., you might leave the theater feeling bemused by the action on stage and yet unmoved by the protagonist’s agony caused by the predatory men in her life.
Hedda Gabler, through Feb. 26, at Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor St., 415-525-1205 or cuttingball.com