Henrik Ibsen shocked the world with the psychological portrait of a female “monster of unsexed depravity” in his Hedda Gabler and cemented his reputations as the father of modern drama, in particular theatrical realism. Six generations later, Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe still shocks with his own adaptation. But by ditching the original societal context, O’Rowe and director Matt Torney had to perform some fancy genre-bending.
Torney sometimes pushes his cast into extreme soap opera melodrama. At other times, particularly in the second half of the show, there are many moments that play as black comedy. The play becomes a riff on psychological pathologies, and the talented cast, several of them making their debut at Studio Theatre, head into the production at full tilt.
Julia Coffey as Hedda shows she is up for such X-treme emotional sports. She ricochets between melodrama and black humor in a triumphant performance. One moment she is brimming over with tears, the next enticing other characters in an intense cobra-weaving-and-spitting seduction, then pouncing and cutting off the other characters with impeccable comic timing. She makes us understand that there is nothing her character won’t do to “feel” something in her life. She sprawls, coils, yells, strokes, hurls herself upon others, and curls in a fetal position cradling the manuscript of the man she has just sent off to kill himself.
I don’t agree with Artistic Director David Muse though that “there is something intrinsically contemporary about Hedda,” which doesn’t mean we don’t have things to discover and delight in the power of the work. To understand fully and sympathize with the conceived characters of Hedda or even Thea Elvsted we have to remember that in the late 1800’s women could not choose their own destiny, that they had to marry to insure their own home, more, that “marrying well” was critical to establish class and social position, and that at all costs they had to avoid any hint of scandal in their domestic deportment. By setting it today, the various situations and the emotional stakes of their actions become skewed.
Hedda Tesman, the only daughter of a general, had learned to ride and to shoot. Coffey’s athletic legs and body very well embodied this would-be son who should have been able to live a life uncorseted by fashion and other societal constraints. Her restlessness and ennui could be partially explained at least by being born the wrong sex to a demanding and powerful father at a time when a woman’s options were few.
Originally, the stakes in the play were high. Hedda had passed the age when she should have married and, on the rebound, had hedged her bets and married down. She admits to her friend Judge Brack that she is a coward when it comes to societal censure. She has just married Jorge Tesman, a dedicated academician, and returned from a six-month honeymoon where she realized she has made a terrible mistake. She is also pressured by Tesman’s aunt to produce forthwith a child and become a mother, a role that both terrifies and disgusts her. (Birthing children was not only a dangerous ordeal but the role of mother would have further imprisoned her.) The situation worsens as Ejlert Lovberg, an old flame, re-asserts himself back into her life not only proving a rival to her husband’s academic ambitions but having managing to forge a satisfying collaborative partnership with her former schoolmate.
The contemporary “casing,” designer Luciana Stecconi’s lovely set of glass and steel as the Tesman’s newly purchased “dream house,” makes Hedda unlikeable from the start. First entering in pajama shorts and a loose cover-up, Coffey’s lounging seems purely narcissistic. Many of her actions are unjustifiably cruel, and her rhythms are pushed to a manic level. The only “justification” for this Hedda is as a woman unhinged from the beginning. It forces Coffey to play the inner tension full forte from the first beat.
Kimiye Corwin, who plays Thea, takes on a role sometimes played as a milk toast but infuses it with great dignity. As a contemporary woman, Thea seems more than able to serve not only as a muse but an equal partner to Ejlert Lovberg. Physically, Corwin draws her shoulders in and constricts her arm movements, making Thea a great foil to the prowling animal of Coffey’s Hedda. I believed her trembling voice and ratcheted concern for the man she loves who may have fallen off the wagon.
But again, I think by setting it in the present, one can’t comprehend the courage Thea has shown by leaving an emotionally abusive marriage to follow an unmarried reprobate to the city. Nor can we appreciate what makes her not able to write the book on her own after she loses her partner. Choosing Tesman so quickly as her next collaborator seems an all-too-quick fix and somewhat suspect.
The three male characters work better as written set in the present day.
Avery Clark plays husband Tesman as suffering from a form of academic self-absorption which helps set up what we suspect as a man who even on his honeymoon has never made it back from the libraries to the bedroom to perform his husbandly duties. His amiable cluelessness serves to cover over his unwillingness to see his wife’s unmet needs and volatility. The adaptation and direction conspire to make Tesman silly, although Clark valiantly drops in moments of the “moral voice” which I do think are deserved in the play.
closes June 19, 2016
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Finally, Michael Early’s performance as Judge Brack is also terrific. When Early first enters, I thought his formal delivery somewhat artificial and out of keeping with the style set by the production. But as the evening progressed, while this modern-day judge jettisons some of the original character’s most cultivated and nuanced aspects, Early pulls off an unforgettable portrait of a corrupt and depraved magistrate. This is a man who uses power and position to insinuate himself into marriages, blackmailing women and, one presumes, men, to satisfy his pathological lust for three-ways. He plays it for laughs at times, like a movie villain, and the crowd loves it.
Studio Theatre once again demonstrates that it can deliver superb casting and acting chops. While this production veers broadly from Ibsen’s consummate crafting of dramatic realism, Torney and company get the job done and take us along for an emotional steeplechase.
Hedda Gabler. Written by Henrik Ibsen. Adapted by Mark O’Rowe. Directed by Matt Torney. Featuring Avery Clark, Julia Coffey, Kimiye Corwin, Michael Early, Shane Kenyon, Rosemary Regan, and Kimberly Schraf. Set Designer: Luciana Stecconi. Lighting Designer: Scott Zielinski. Costume Designer: Murell Horton. Sound Designer: Fitz Patton. Produced by Studio Theatre. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.