Move over Joan Collins. Take a number Omarosa. Not so fast Mommy Dearest. Don’t call us, we’ll call you Scarlett O’Hara. If anything opens up in the cray-cray division we’ll let you women know, but we’ve already got an unstable, hot mess of a villain here that puts all of you to shame, thank-you-very-much. Take off your earrings girls and mind your hair, because Hedda Gabler at City Lights Theater Company is lunging across the table at you Housewives of Honningsvåg style.
Interestingly enough, Hedda Gabler is a play that premiered in 1890 to largely negative reviews, but since then has become a “classic” of 19th century dramatic realism. It’s a play that’s been at the heart of theater study for a long time now and honestly, I can’t remember what made Ibsen, and this play in particular, such hot stuff. Lack of sunshine on the long Oslo nights and maybe an Omega 3 deficiency has undoubtedly cast the lonely, dark and dysfunctional shadow that is this play. The script (and this adaptation which I believe is more accessible and easier on the ears language-wise than the original translation) is a fabulous workout and opportunity for actors to play a variety of emotional levels, true. I just question if this play is more for the actors than it is for the audience.
But, then again, maybe all it needs is a name change to bring in the right audience and the right expectation for this play. Perhaps a better name for this play would be All My Fjords, because really, it’s a soap opera. And, as we well know there’s a long tradition of obsession over soap operas and we only have to look at the titles of the currently running reality shows to confirm the power that people behaving badly still holds over us in our current era.
There are copious Jerry Springer moments in this play which tries at first to disguise itself as a polite period piece. Decorum is quickly obliterated with an onslaught of “oh-no-she-didn’t” moments and a substantial amount of “what the what?” served with a side of highly questionable behavior all around. This absolutely provides entertainment, but for me personally, not the highest form, nor the most compelling. Hedda might be a tremendously, non-traditional guilty pleasure for many though, I could well be in the minority here, admittedly.
Though the play wasn’t my shot of vodka, this cast goes through the emotions, definitely committing and “going there” with all the ridiculously bitchy and bizarre plot twists. They’re overall very good actors and they’re staged well. They have indeed embraced the melodrama 100% here, nothing even keeled or down to earth about it and I’m sure all of actors are coming out of this experience, stronger for it. I survived Hedda shirts should be mandatory gifts to anyone that completes a run and I acknowledge whole-heartedly that it’s not only physically stamina building, but craft building to arrive on the other side of Ibsen.
Hedda herself can be played as a woman giving society the bird and really effing with the rules, or a demoralized, tragic, desperate sympathetic victim of societal pressures, but to me this version seemed to really focus in on the insane and malicious side of the character and the extreme lack of compatibility she has with everyone else around her. She is at the center of very damaged, irritating, lecherous, weak company and her interactions with them are intentionally cringe-inducing. They are an unlikeable, unredemptive lot primarily, some of which we can’t even love to hate, they are that icky. But, Hedda herself seemed resigned to me from the very start, at the end of her struggle, not finding joy in the game nor having a very long way to fall or change in the lengthy, unhurried paced journey of the play. And, while maybe in some ways not as dynamic or deep an interpretation as I would have liked, there were significant portions of this play that had me enraged, rolling my eyes and even laughing at the absurd train-wreck of it all.
City Lights consistently has some of the best sound design around and this show was no exception. Stage props were lovely too, giving a necessary period feel to the overall visual. The set is a bit metaphorical and fractured for my liking, but functional and it certainly fills the space well, allowing for an ample variety of movement.
This is a long play (with TWO intermissions) in a theater that like Norwegian winters, runs a bit chilly, so caffeinate, and bring your layers for optimal enjoyment. 3 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for this play which, while it may have outworn its welcome as a seminal piece of theatre, certainly had its moments in this production by a hardworking cast. Hedda Gabler plays through April 21st at the City Lights Theater in San Jose.