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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Mr. van Hove's stylistic excesses are likely to make some Ibsen purists flinch. Those unfamiliar with the famously enigmatic, self-destructive anti-heroine are apt to scratch their heads over the occasional bipolar outbursts from Hedda as well as other visitors to the usually elegant parlor now transformed into a huge loftlike space. (As one such first-time Hedda viewer commented during the intermission "from what I can make out, this seems to be about a group of rather deranged people").
The above caveat out of the way, van Hove's treatment is audacious and entertainer. However, though it lacks so much as a smidgen of Victorian mustiness, it never really undermines the essential Ibsen. In fact, it's not nearly as revisionist as Robert A. Prio's campy adaption, Speed Hedda, seen several years ago across the street from this theater at La MaMa ETC.
You know that this is as much Van Hove as Ibsen territory the minute you enter the reconfigured theater. The almost blindingly bright, bare white sheetrock walls that envelop the audience are the work of Mr. Van Hove's design colleague Jan Versweyveld and a dozen carpenters. The huge "parlor" is bare except for cans of flowers (some of which eventually get tossed all over the place), a few pieces of furniture -- telescoping the director's intention to strip this Hedda down to its psychological underpinning. The set is also an obvious metaphor for the emptiness inside Hedda who, even before the play begins, is maniacally playing on an upright piano, its backboard, like the walls, also stripped bare.
When the play begins and Berte, the maid (Elzbieta Czyzewska) ushers in George Tesman (Jason Butler Harner) and his Aunth Julia (Mary Beth Peil) via an intercom, Hedda sinks to the floor next to the piano, a mute figure of despair. As the Tesman's home is more Chelsea loft than Scandanavian mansion, so the characters, even the maid, are dressed to look like people you'd meet at a cocktail party -- with Peil's Aunt Julia quite elegant in a Diane Van Furstenberg style leopard print dress and sky-high heels (the director seems to have a penchant for uncomfortable but stylish footwear).
There are other very NOW touches-- Hedda sports ankle tatoos, George's embroidered slippers are now thongs, Aunt Julia's disdained hat is a long sweater. The departure from the characters' more usual appearance is even more evident in their personas. Hedda seems more depressed than repressed. George is not so much a nerd than a smart but overgrown boy. Both Aunt Julia and Mrs. Elvsted (Ana Reeder) are more focused and less fluttery and there's no missing Judge Brack's (John Douglas Thompson) sadistic streak and Lovborg's (Glenn Fitzgerald) addictive tendencies.
Though the top acting honors go to Ms. Marvel, the other six actors effectively capture the up-to-date sensibility. Even the relatively minor maid's role is here made special by Elzbieta Czyzewska whose cigarette smoking Berte has that touch of sinister mystery once associated with old black and white movie housekeepers played by Judith Anderson and Gale Sondergaard.
Christopher Hampton's excellent new translation suits Van Hove's concept well though it adheres faithfully to the plot which, in case you need a refresher, begins with Hedda's return from her honeymoon and ends with the theatrical shot that has been fired on stages around the world. The beautiful Hedda is torn between a yearning for excitement and sexual fulfillment and the need to conform and adhere to a strict code of honor. She has repressed her adventurous side by rejecting Eilert Lovborg, a writer of dubious morals and married the dull George Tesman for his career prospects and respectability. Hedda's discontent and boredom explodes into dangerous meddling when Lovberg returns, reformed and now successful, and a former schoolmate, Mrs. Elvsted, displays the courage Hedda lacked by leaving her own dull husband for Lovborg. The manipulative Judge Brack and a lost manuscript accelerate the tragic end.
While Ibsen wrote about an environment where repression dictated behavior, the modern setting helps to make the unrepressed outbursts we see here believable rather than bizarre and un-Ibsenlike. Even if you don't buy into the let it all hang out character interpretations, it's a sure bet that you'll not soon forget this intriguing revival.
Hedda Gabler on Broadway
Hedda Gabler/Ibsen, Off-Broadway
Speed Hedda La Mama adaptation
More Stately Mansions, O'Neill as envisioned by Ivo Van Hove
A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Willimas, with Marvel and directed by Van Hove.