The first commendable performance of Hidden Theatre's Hedda Gabler is Jay Dysart's set. Before the play begins, we stare at an almost bare Victorian living room--walls covered with an ornate yellow wallpaper, and white sheets thrown over the furniture. The stage is bathed in sepia-toned light, giving the whole scene the appearance of an old photograph. And the white-draped furniture gives this picture a portentous stillness. It's a death mask of a house, whispering musty secrets, murmuring faintly with ghosts. Then Berta the maid enters, silently and slowly beginning to uncover the furniture, hang portraits, arrange flowers. It's ritual--shaking off the dust, reanimating the ghosts, stirring the story behind the stillness. The play is about to begin: Come in.
Jorgen Tesman and his new wife, Hedda, have just returned from their six-month honeymoon. It was a rousing success, scholar Jorgen (Ron Menzel) tells his Aunt Julle (Gretchen Douma); he's come back with a suitcase full of notes for his new book. The work is all for Hedda though--to pay for the house, the servants, the horse. Jorgen speaks of his new wife with reverence as Aunt Julle shows him the new hat she's bought, "so Hedda wouldn't be ashamed of me if we should ever happen to go for a walk together in town." As Julle places the hat on the chair next to her, Hedda (Annelise Christ) emerges. Julle, Jorgen, and we, the audience, cannot move our eyes from her commanding presence. Julle greets Hedda warmly, and Hedda shrugs, then comments, "That maid Berta just isn't going to work out, Tesman...Just look! She's left her old hat on the chair!"
Hedda is a bitch. Annelise Christ infuses the title role with an imperiousness and dispassion, both stemming from some barely perceptible desperation. But when fused with Christ's magnetic presence, Hedda demands our attention, our respect, our subservience. She has all that from the uxorious Jorgen, as sweet and affable a fellow as Hedda is hard and cold. Menzel's Jorgen exudes a faith in decency, and a childlike sincerity and bewilderment.
The marriage is doomed. It's only a matter of how.
"How" becomes slowly apparent as more visitors grace the Tesman living room. First, there's Thea Elvsted (Tracey Maloney), Jorgen's sweet and trembling former lover. Next comes Commissioner Brack (Brian Baumgartner, oozing about the stage), a former suitor of Hedda's who seems all too eager to latch on to the couple. Then Ejlert Lovborg (David Schulner), Jorgen's old- friend-turned-rival-turned-alcoholic-disgrace, arrives. Thea has brought Lovborg back to the living, and together they are working on a new book, one that will re-secure Lovborg's reputation--and their love. But, Thea says, there stands in the shadow another woman in Lovborg's life whose name she does not know, a former love who haunts his mind to this day. Hmmmmm...
Ibsen's script drops clues about these messy histories casually yet methodically--answering one question while raising another so that the stakes grow like slow cancer. The entanglements of the past hang heavily in the still air. Yet these connections are delicate and tenuous, and they require a certain Nordic sameness of affect and manner. And though every actor in the play does a commendable job with his or her role, the lack of coherence in the performances causes the production to seem less intimate. Christ and Maloney both command the stage with rich voices and deliberate, theatrical styles. Baumgartner and Menzel employ a lighter touch with naturalistic rhythms, letting the subtext rush by in quick-breathed, smile-masked pauses. And Schulner speaks with a monotonic near-violent intensity, a hushed weightiness that can only belong in an Ibsen play (or in an asylum). All laudable, all appropriate, but the variety of techniques make each of the parts greater than the whole.
It is this whole--the collective temperament of the guests in her sitting room--that is pushing Hedda over the edge: Brack praises her house, and she responds, "There is something dead about it. Like the flowers from a party--the day after." Brack suggests she find an interest to occupy her days, and Hedda responds, "It seems I have an inclination for only one thing in this world...to bore myself to death."
It's a particularly late-Victorian ennui, one that has driven countless literary figures mad. Hedda is desperate for action in a world populated with watchers. Her husband is a scholar, a cultural critic. It's no accident that the most-repeated phrase in the play is the cool, all-purpose, "Just think!"--as in, "Shot himself in the head? Just think!" For Ibsen's characters, life is an endless series of reactions without any action. As such, Hedda takes rare pleasure from news of another's suicide: "Something courageous can really be done in this world!" she says--"something illuminated by unconditional beauty."
Difficult stuff to dramatize, this atmosphere, and the audience may find itself praising this production with the same muted emotion that plagues Hedda. The unease Hidden Theatre captures is born out of a walled-in intimacy, a closely knit, stultifying unity. In Ibsen's world it takes one person to be miserable, but a roomful of guests to be suicidal.
Hedda Gabler runs through August 30 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage; call 377-2616.
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