I was all ready to declare Quotidian Theatre Company’s boldly imagined if awkwardly self-conscious reworking of Hedda Gabler as a fatal misstep in transference. But after revisiting Henrik Ibsen’s original script, I found that director Michael Avolio’s adaptation is in fact an astute, if not penetrating, revamp. I’m now not so sure what to declare … it’s at least an interesting take on the classic work, unintentionally more a satirical comedy of manners however, than a forward-looking social drama.
The concept to move Ibsen’s study of the societal repression of women from 1890 Norway to 1963 Washington, D.C., is a brilliant idea, credited to Quotidian co-founder Stephanie Mumford. Hedda is tailor-made for the early 1960s second-wave feminist awakening—as announced by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the national discussion it sparked on the widespread unhappiness of American women.
But the execution is wanting. Minus the original’s Victorian conventions binding its overeager appetite, the play’s soap-opera plotting becomes magnified into trashy tabloid-sized absurdity. Character interactions and motivations, along with the dialogue at times, unhitch from believable grounding and blast off into ludicrous late-night Showtime territory.
I still find problems with the direction of the major roles, but want to credit Avolio—whose directorial debut of The Iceman Cometh at Quotidian last fall was staggeringly good—with an exceptional translation of the script. I wonder though, if he shouldn’t have pushed the conceit further and turned Hedda into an all-out over-the-top splash. As it is, the pretense of credulity cannot withstand certain of the lines and actions so marinated in purple that the straining gives off an uncomfortably comic effect.
One of the biggest problems is the characterization of Hedda herself. She is, of course one, of the great viragos of the stage, a modern Medea or Lady Macbeth endlessly psychoanalyzed to no avail, but someone in whom many have found a champion, or at the very least a sympathetic pioneer for the cause.
Avolio’s characterization, as played by Katie Culligan, never establishes emotional contact with the audience. We know Hedda is unhappy and frustrated, but Culligan’s performance goes from inscrutable to arch, bordering on the one-dimensional, rarely extending the tendrils of relatedness necessary for the audience to find communion. The role, and the production itself, often carry over into the realm of self-aware discomfort. Again, this direction might’ve worked if it was pushed further and Culligan was completely unleashed, blowing up scenes that currently come off as simply ridiculous.
Closes November 23, 2014
Quotidian Theatre at
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street
Approx 2 hours, 30 minutes, 1 intermission
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The other actors fall within a range of believability: at one end Christian Sullivan’s portrayal of the erratic genius Elliott Lovborg suffers from the same exorbitant histrionics that Culligan calls forth at times, while at the other pole, Sarah Ferris and Francisco Reinoso imbue their characters, Thea Elvsted and Judge Brack respectively, with a consistency that fits within the adaptation’s context. Reinoso is especially adept at the reptilian Brack, just barely concealing ruthless menace underneath a consummate charm. This was one role that was actually enhanced by the play’s move to Washington, the capital of power, for obvious reasons.
With his guileless demeanor and TV sitcom stammering Brian McDermott falls into the middle range with his approach to the hapless George Tesman, Hedda’s decent, foolish husband and counterweight.
While Quotidian’s sets aren’t meant to wow you, they usually serve the production well, making Hedda’s somewhat bland Georgetown quarters a minor disappointment. Stephanie Mumford’s costumes on the other hand, especially Hedda’s attire, are accomplished and striking, and Don Slater’s lighting design contains the cinematic flourishes (on a dime!) that I’ve come to expect from the company. The contemporary rock n’ roll and Motown musical interludes are a nice touch.
So, in reconsideration, Quotidian’s Hedda Gabler could be considered hip and spry, if digested in the right frame of mind. Avolio’s inventive treatment has tricked out any stolidness from the original, but hasn’t compensated for the wild turns of fancy that look all the more incomprehensible in modern trappings.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. 1963 concept by Stephanie Mumford. Script adaptation by Michael Avolio. Directed by Michael Avolio. Featuring Katie Culligan, Brian McDermott, Sarah Ferris, Francisco Reinoso, Christian Sullivan, Laura Russell and Kecia Campbell.
Lighting designer: Don Slater. Set designers: Michael Avolio and Jack Sbarbori. Costume designer: Stephanie Mumford. Sound designers: Ed Moser, Michael Avolio. Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.
Closes Nov 23
Jane Horwitz . Washington Post The flawed production falters on nearly every level as it relocates Ibsen’s 1890 play to 1963 in the District.
Sydney-Chanele Dawkings . DCMetroTheaterArts This updated version of Hedda’s self-loathing, deeply flawed character and despicable actions appear too one-dimensional – and too easy to dismiss.
Madison Kaigh . BroadwayWorld intriguing and memorable, bringing new meaning to a classic drama