Friday, July 20, 2012

Hedda Gabler at The Intiman Theatre - Theater Review

It is hard to be critical of a play that has so much going for it. When you see so much strong artistic talent on display (a sleek well balanced and visually arresting modernist set; energetic, committed and assured performances from a number of excellent actors; bold choices with established plot points and line deliveries that jar and reawaken even the most tenured Ibsen aficionado) you are expecting and even rooting for a solid, if not, excellent production of a play.

Timothy McCuen Piggee and Marya Sea Kaminski
Unfortunately, despite all elements mentioned above( none of which are thrown out lightly - these are clearly extremely talented artists at work) this production of Hedda Gabler leaves its audience confused, frustrated and, dare I say, at times, even bored, as Hedda herself is so desperately trying not to be.

Ultimately, the problem here is context. On its most simple level, Hedda Gabler works when the societal constraints set upon Hedda, are most clear. She is from a very established family, she is used to the finest things, she expects greatness in her life, but all the world around her expects for her to be simply a mother and a good wife. She is not cut out for this world. Neither is Nora from Ibsen's A Doll's House. Its been said that Hedda is the Nora who does not slam the door at the end of her play. Nora slams the door and walks onto some kind of new life. Hedda doesn't see that as an option. She feels trapped at the beginning and the cage closes in on her as the play progresses.

In this production, Marya Sea Kaminski (giving a fully invested skillful and attention grabbing performance) in the role of Hedda, plays her, from the start, as the standard definition of a psychopath. She has no empathy, is impulsive, is manipulative (beyond the script's requirements), lacks guilt, and has superficial charm. This portrayal is heightened by the director (Andrew Russell) and choreographer (Olivier Wevers) need to have her perform odd jittering hand gestures that are accompanied by classic "psycho" type music when other characters aren't watching : is she reaching for those guns locked in the box at the other end off the room; is she trying to stop herself from lashing out violently at her husband or their friends and neighbors? It doesn't matter, because the moments are too isolated and fleeting to be integrated into what, in may other ways, is a very straight forward performance.

Ryan Fields and Marya Sea Kaminski

Therefore, we don't get any vision as Hedda as the romantic that she is. She wants greatness and beauty in life and, if not, greatness and beauty in death. Hedda must at some point in the play attempt to try to live with her circumstances, even if just for a moment. She needs to try to find something that will allow her to avoid her eventual suicide. Otherwise she would do it much earlier. The fact that she doesn't have the will and full reasoning to kill herself earlier in the play (much like Hamlet doesn't at the beginning of his play) is part of what gives the play dramatic tension (Ibsen is called the father of the well-made-play for a reason). Director Russell's choice to have Kaminski play Hedda so cold, so flippant and so unaffected, and have so many lines dripping in contemporary irony that the original play couldn't have suggested, distances the audience from her story and diffuses the drama that Ibsen wrote.

Yet Russell's choices with Kaminski could have potentially worked a bit better, had other elements of the production come together. The set, which upon viewing before curtain, was impressive, unexpected and masterfully executed. The depth and height of the space, the coolness of color, the lack of traditional domestic living room drama decor, was exciting and expectation setting. However, once the play began, the ensemble used only the front most 1/3 of the stage for 90% of the play and all action happening behind the gauze put up to divide the stage as well as the action taking place on the elevated platform above and behind the action, could have been eliminated altogether and would have given the audience the same, if not clearer understanding of the play ( I would go as far to say that you could take the same performance put it in a 20' x 20' black box space, loose all the choreography and backstage action, and the play would have even a stronger impact).

Don't get me wrong. Some of the visual tableau's were stunning in their composition. They just had nothing to do with the play we were watching. The best and most obvious example of this kind of misfire, is the final moments of the play where traditionally Hedda, having found herself trapped into a new a hidden, and to her, unacceptable, kind of slavery with Judge Brack, goes to another room and takes one of her pistols and shoots herself. Here Russell and Wevers have Kaminski actually onstage perform a dance moment that is clearly and extension of all those weird distracting gestures from earlier in the play. She battles with herself as she throws herself between the onstage characters who do not notice her distress. Then, in a final moment, she drops, a shot is heard and she reaches out to the audience (nothing even miming her handling a gun has occurred). This unexpected piece of avant-garde interpretation is so out of place and seemingly random in this production that upon leaving the theater I heard someone say "Oh, she shot herself, I didn't get that."

Again. I have no objection to the artistry of the movement sequence itself. Actually, taken on its own, it may have been the most complex and engaging moment of the evening. Yet it had no context withing the rest of the production. The audience applause at the end of the evening was a bit timid in my estimation (remember this is Seattle where it doesn't take much to get a standing ovation). The enthusiasm that was present but scattered in the applause seemed to be for the effort of the actors (again Kaminiski was solidly committed in what she was asked to do and I would get tickets to anything she, the outstanding Timothy McCuen Piggee (Judge Brack) or Ryan Fields (Jorgen Tesman) would be cast in next) but hesitant in its confusion as to what it had just seen.

I am so glad to see Intiman taking bold steps in its reincarnation this year. It is a theater that has brought some great moments to Seattle stages. The artists in this production are clearly worthy to be part of its legacy. I eagerly look forward to seeing more plays in the Festival.

Hedda Gabler plays as part of the Intiman Theatre Festival through August 25 tickets here


I haven't seen Romeo and Juliet in this festival yet, but I have to assume that the set I saw in Hedda Gabler was designed more for the Shakespeare production than it was for the Ibsen. I was almost distracted during Hedda, picturing so clearly how those classic scenes from that tragic love story would be staged on this set. It almost seemed as though some of the staging that I found irrelevant (the off stage actors seated above, rising to their feet when their names are mentioned, as if we wouldn't be able to keep track otherwise, etc) was an afterthought - we have all this space from the Shakespeare production, we might as well use it. Clearly one of the trappings of doing a multi-play festival, but I believe this play could have been given a bit more its own world on stage.

No comments:

Post a Comment