The Playgoer: REVIEW(s): HEDDA & NORA

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Sunday, March 12, 2006


Hedda Gabler
starring Cate Blanchett
Sydney Theatre Company, at BAM through March 26


adapted from A Doll House by Ingmar Bergman,
directed by Pamela Moller Kareman, Test Pilot Productions at Arclight Theatre through March 12

What Ibsen may have done for womankind has been much debated, but for women in the theatre his gifts do keep on giving. As victimized and oppressed as Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer may be in their fictional worlds, stage divas have dominated the stage in their names ever since Ibsen's ink went dry. The dynamism of these plays' protagonists is their blessing and their curse. The roles can attract star power, bringing talent perhaps but potentially eclipsing and unbalancing the rest of each play's crucial ensemble. On the other hand, if the actress brings none of the requisite presence and depth to bear, everyone's in for a cold Norwegian night, staring at an empty fireplace.

On the New York stage, stars don't get much bigger than Cate Blanchett lately, and I will start by attesting to the Oscar-winner's natural charisma and stage chops. Which is a good start in such a massive and omnipresent role as Hedda. In Robyn Nevin's production for the visiting Sydney Theatre Company, Ms. Gabler-Tesman, as she might wish to be called today, lurks more than ever, drifting through Fiona Crombie's surprisingly (for this play) airy mansion of a set. Incessantly restless and fidgety, moving furniture pieces and disrupting flower arrangements, this Hedda would pull focus even were she not a glamour-cover movie star. At first one might be aghast at Blanchett's disregard of her fellow actors, until you realize the choice here is to make Hedda just that...well, bitchy. It's good for a few laughs up front--aided by the snappy dialogue of Andrew Upton's "adaptation" which barely refrains from outright anachronism. Blanchett's orneriness ends up working against the play, however, because it's just too winning, oddly enough--at least for the hipsters in the BAM audience perhaps new to the play. About halfway through I had to remind myself that there actually was some depth to this play, and that Hedda wasn't just a time traveler from "Sex and the City" forced into a corset to endure the Ibsenite expostulating of some 19th century stuffshirts. (Appropriately, Kristian Fredrikson's costumes inch it all up to about 1910, it seems. And not too badly.) Hedda has real emotional problems of her own. While Carrie Bradshaw might have her run away with her old flame, Ibsen makes her plan his death. What does that tell you?

So the result is actually a pretty entertaining Hedda, and that's not a phrase you hear too often. But, of course, by the time you get to that gunshot at the end (which seems more random and hackneyed than ever here) you can see the problem. Hedda's not a play about just a bored woman but a mountainous passion kept at bay by bourgeois propriety and small-mindedness. It's also about some other people, too. Anthony Weigh turns in a milquetoast, but not unlikeable George (here Jorgen), whose presence shows the protagonist's problems are not necessarily all about a bad marriage. Hugo Weaving turns in a more whiskered version of his Matrix badguy as Judge Brack--which wouldn't be too far off the mark if he didn't practically twirl that mustache so brazenly. The dead weight in the group, unfortunately, is the Lovborg of Aden Young, who generates no onstage chemistry with Blanchett (can you believe it?), thus providing no engine for the play's tragedy. If your Hedda looks like she can eat your Lovborg alive at any moment, it's time to recast.

It was hard not to think back to another Hedda just over a year ago at (yes) New York Theatre Workshop--Elizabeth Marvel's rendition in Ivo Van Hove's trippy modernization. The two productions were from entirely different schools so comparison is not really fair, and Van Hove is playing his own private game. But Marvel managed to show us in that extreme wacked-out performance the core of Hedda's diseased soul, an unforgettable portrait of neurotic, totally irrational depression. There will never be another Hedda like hers, nor should there be. But serves as a necessary reminder that Hedda is more than a girl with "attitude."
It's surprising that the small Test Pilot Productions company would be the first to stage Ingmar Bergman's chamber version of A Doll House (Nora), since it's been around for 25 years and already been done by many regional theatres. Other than distilling the cast down to the essential five characters (no kids, no maid) and chopping up the three acts into more focused episodic/cinematic encounters, Bergman's script may trim Ibsen's dialogue and subplots but otherwise doesn't change the original substantively at all. The main benefit, though, (aside from making for a smaller more affordable production) is the opportunity to play this still rather formal classic well-made play in an intense Bergmanesque "close-up".

Director Pamela Moller Kareman--with her design team and composer--have created a compelling atmosphere for the play. Like with the Hedda, it's nice to see Ibsen brought out of doors a bit. Here, gone is the obligatory living room (from the ultimate livingroom play!) in favor of a winter backdrop of white barren trees and scattered snow. Maybe it didn't make sense for the play, but I appreciated the freshness. And in the first few moments Kareman displayed a balletic impulse in her physicalizing of Nora's initial predicament--a gesture which lasted all of ten seconds before we were disappointingly dropped into 90 minutes of pretty routine acting-class naturalism. The lesson is: with Ibsen you cannot put more attention into the production values than the casting. Nora may be less mature than Hedda as a role (and probably as a play, too) but it demands an actress of no less magnitude and depth. Carey Macaleer, unfortunately, can never transcend her classic ingenue looks and untrained teenage-timbre voice. She may move with the grace of a dancer, but it's Nora's soul that needs to do the acrobatics here. The rest of the company is not really much better (except for the very centered Sarah Bennett as Mrs. Linde), making for some insufferably bland recitations of a very familiar text.

If there's one aspect Bergman's version is meant to bring out the most it's sex, of course. I'm sure the Sydney Theatre Company had the same idea with Ms Blanchett. Make no mistake, Ibsen can be sexy. But it was interesting to see in both cases how there's nothing more unsexy than lame acting.


Larissa said...

Thank you for your review of Hedda. It's funny, while I agree with
many of the specifics of what you found amiss, the production for me
was so much greater than the sum of its parts that I can't agree with
your overall disappointment. Furthermore, when I consider some of your specific objections, I think back to what impressions those elements of those objections made upon me when I watched the show, and I wonder why you felt the way you did. For instance, I’m surprised you felt Anthony Weigh’s a “milquetoast” Jorgen. This was the first Jorgen I’ve seen who didn’t seem like an oblivious twit: Weigh made it clear that he perceived every scathing bit of Hedda’s contempt for him and it infuriated him (have you ever seen a Jorgen actually display anger at and impatience with his new wife before?). For the first time I saw a Jorgen who I could believe was intelligent enough to be (if nevertheless still boring, square, and gauche) considered for a professorship. Did you not find it refreshing to see a Jorgen who talked back? Usually Hedda’s withering remarks are lost on everyone but the audience (which whips up a nice breeze patting itself on the back for being smarter than the people onstage). And was Aden Young’s blahness as Lovborg actually detrimental to the telling of the story? After all, perhaps it’s not important what sort of man Lovborg actually is—but rather who Hedda, desperate for a hero to dream on, thinks he is, and even more important, how she goes about trying to turn him into just that?
But my bigger concern is what I mentioned earlier—sometimes a production mysteriously succeeds in becoming greater than the sum of its parts (which of course is of no help at all to a theatre critic) and I think this was one of those instances. I have the feeling that the average theatergoer came away from this production understanding, not being perplexed by, why Hedda shoots herself in the end, understanding that it is a dangerous thing to be trapped in a world that doesn’t allow one to exercise one’s mind and mandates that only certain personalities and behaviors are acceptable--isn’t Hedda’s problem, on an admittedly superficial level, that it has been drilled into her head that she mustn’t ever find herself at the center of a social scandal? And here she has this native fascination with the forbidden. Do you believe that the flaws you pointed out obscured these themes? Maybe they did, and I’m convinced of the production’s success due to my own idealism; I saw because I wanted to see, not because it was there (it happens!).
That being said, I still regard NYTW's 2004 Hedda as one of the great theatrical experiences of my life so far.

Anonymous said...

Great critique of Hedda at BAM. I agree with everything you said. Ms. Blanchett's presence is so strong in the play, it's hard for a modern audience to understand what she's so "trapped by."

I only wish you had mentioned the HORRENDOUS soundtrack. Since when is it acceptable for a death to be accompanied by DUH-DUH-DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUHHHHHHHH. UGH.

Larissa said...

That's another thing. I think I'm the only person who liked the soundtrack (although I dont actually remember the part that accompanied Hedda's suicide, and if it was as anonymous described, that is indeed cheesy). The music that rose between scenes reminded me of a military band heard over a great distance. Made me think of fog and fjords and Hedda dreaming of her father. But if it in fact proved a distraction rather than enhancement to most people, then it is a problem, I guess.....

Anonymous said...

Interesting review of NORA. By any chance are you someone who never made it as an actress?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Playgoer, very interesting and smart review of Hedda Gabler, although I liked it more than you did. One thing I liked about it was that the decision to play Hedda as pretty much a monstrous psychotic in a death-spiral downplayed an element of the text that has always felt sentimental and unsupported to me--the idea that Hedda has deeply special, fine qualities that curdle into monstrosity because of the choking propriety of everything that surrounds her. What qualities, exactly? I've never seen in the play--as one does in A Doll's House--a real case for who Hedda Gabler might have been if....if....what? she hadn't forced herself into a marriage? I thought Blanchett gave a great account of someone so depressed that she can only remind herself she's alive by behaving wickedly; to me it felt like a really interesting reading of the character that could have been better supported by the director and cast.

Anyway, fun to talk about something other than Rachel Corrie.

Anonymous said...

I know the actress, and the reviewer's description -- of her looks and voice (as well as inability to transcend their immediately warm but ultimately limiting attributes), is spot-on.

Carey is a beautiful woman (gorgeous), talented and so on. However, what you see and hear on stage, is, what you see and hear offstage. Which, of course, is a tribute to her genuine qualities.

But, a great part of successful acting, would be, the ability to fool your audience into thinking that, what is false is true et. vice-versa.

And so, if that -- inability to transcend -- makes Carey real, that's a great issue to have.

Playgoer said...


Anonymous said...

playgoer: James Lipton, Frank Rich're not.

More like Roma Torre.

Playgoer said...

Lipton? That's who you wanna go with? Really?

I just want to know why this sudden flurry of comment activity on a post over two years old!