Laila Robins begins her performance as Hedda Tesman (née Gabler) at the Guthrie by doubling over and vomiting directly onto the stage. The set is an attractive but dull one: a few comely pieces of furniture, a dozen welcoming bouquets of flowers, and a stark black-and-white photograph of a stern-faced military man. But Hedda heaves, and suddenly it is a place of drama.
Playwright Henrik Ibsen took great pains to make Hedda unsympathetic in his 1890 tragedy of misbehavior, Hedda Gabler. He does not offer a single scene of remorse or mercy--indeed, with each scene Hedda bests her own misbehavior. No aspect of the woman is respectable, or even lovable. As played by Robins, she is unspeakably cold and distant, and relentlessly cruel.
She is, however, equally irresistible--particularly in this version, directed by David Esbjornson. With a cry of "Oh, the angst," Robins's Hedda displays a genius for transforming even the weakest personality in her entourage into a dramatically compelling individual. Let us take her husband: As played by Seth Jones, he seems more like an amiable mutt than a man. In one scene he bounds after Hedda, holding out a pair of slippers for her to examine. One expects that should she take them she would discover the slippers to be drenched in his saliva. The man possesses a profound but useless intellect, and without Hedda, he would be a terrific bore. But when she snaps her withering tongue at him, he is a source of endless fun.
Robins's Hedda is so vocal in her boredom that she invites brazen passes by the entire male cast of the play. The moment her husband is gone, a family friend, Judge Brack (Stephen Yoakam), leers at her and insists on an affair. He then scurries out into the garden. Informed that he is leaving the back way, he stares at her derrière and declares salaciously that he has no objections to the rear door (Esbjornson's direction finds a thousand hidden double-entendres in Ibsen's text). Without Hedda, Brack would simply be a petty official with a penchant for late-night parties; the moment he is alone in a room with her, he transforms into a world-class pervert--and what could be more amusing?
And then there is Hedda's most damning behavior: her abuse of her old flame Eilert Løvborg, here played by Sean Haberle as though he were a grinning caveman with matted, shaggy hair and an unkempt beard. A recovering alcoholic, Løvborg has put his wild past behind him and pressed forward, penning a popular book of history and following it up with a monumental work of fiction. He has begun a courageous, ambitious life--joined by a woman who's boldly left her husband--and Hedda correctly realizes that there is nothing less amusing than courage and moderation. She immediately begins to scheme against the couple. As she torments him in ways too sadistic to fathom, perhaps we are supposed to despise her for it--but how can we? Suddenly the caveman is interesting again!
Hedda perfectly acts out the interests of the audience, who, after all, did not come to the theater to see characters muddle through their dull lives. And, for much of the play, Hedda behaves as though she herself were an audience member. When her husband faces financial ruin, for example, Hedda offers no sympathy, expressing nothing but a burning curiosity as to how it might all turn out. One gets the sense that if Hedda had her druthers, toward the end of the play she would simply abandon the stage to seat herself in the audience, pausing only long enough to shake hands with grateful theater patrons ("What? Oh, yes, thank you, I agree that the play seems more lively now.")--before sitting down to witness the results of her naughtiness.