Review: Hedda Gabler by Broke Thespian's Theatre Company
by Michael Meigs
Ibsen was in the habit of shaking up the bourgeoisie, especially in the latter half of his 40-plus year career as theatre manager and playwright. Hedda Gabler (1891) is in some ways an extension of ideas in his A Doll's House, (1879), which concludes with Nora, a respectable married woman, walking out on her husband and children. In this play the titular Hedda Gabler, daughter of old General Gabler, is initially referred to only as "Mrs. Tesman." She arrives in her new and expensively furnished residence directly from her honeymoon trip, annoyed, bored, and somewhat unbalanced by this consignment to respectability. Ibsen has Nora abandon her doll's house; he has Hedda destroy her former lover, scorn her earnestly pedantic husband, become aware of the lascivious intentions of her blackmailer Judge Brack, and make her escape by putting a bullet through her own brain.
Strong stuff for the 1890's and even today. As emminently respectable blackmailer Judge Brack cries in the last line of the play, "Good God! People don't do such things."
It's common for directors and designers to lavish attention upon creating a semblance of the Biedermeier elegance of the upper middle classes portrayed in Ibsen's worlds. After all, the opening stage direction calls for "A spacious, handsome, and tastefully furnished drawing-room, decorated in dark colors" and describes at great length the furniture, the decoration, and items on display. Costumers take special delight in the ruffles, sweeps, tweeds, and waistcoats. In the several productions of Hedda I've seen in Central Texas, I've always been fascinated by the tension between those trappings and the very contemporary feel of desperation that Ibsen plants in his key characters. His naturalism has survived remarkably well.
Broke Thespian's Theatre Company in Buda was unapologetic about the lack of such scene-setting elegance in their two-weekend run of Hedda Gabler. Judging by their costumes, these characters could exist any time between the mid-twentieth century and today; Hedda's black leggings seemed audaciously 2020, whle her flaming-red draped top with buttons suggested glam rock. In Act I Tesman's Aunt Julia is proud of a hat that's no hat at all, but rather a humble muslin cap meant to be tied under the chin. Hedda's acquainance Thea Elvsted is comfortable in snug sweaters over a simple blouse and skirt. The men appear in suits that do not set a date for the production.
What impressed me was the focused intensity of the principal characters and the fluidity of Miranda Martinez's direction. Lettie Dyer as Hedda gives the impression of enormous tension held in check, a stillness that menaces. Though she's the title character, from the earliest scene this Hedda comes across as a potential adversary, brittle but dangerous. Caroline Williams as Tesman's Aunt Julia has none of that, but rather a concerned but determinedly cheerful demeanor despite the strained financial circumstances and the illness of an elderly sister.
In contrast, Liz Catchings as Thea, once Hedda's schoolmate but now in flight from a barren marriage and ardently seeking the brilliant but unstable writer Lövborg, is alive with contradictory hopes and feelings.
The men also offered a study in contrasts. Llailan Bennett gives Hedda's husband George Tesman an earnest, sweet disposition, apparently unaware of her growing anger. William Swift as daily visitor Judge Brack presides over conversations with satisfied bonhomie. Cody Bae Claussen, when he turns up as Lövborg, perhaps ten uncertain steps along in the twelve-step process of recovering from alcoholism and debauchery, is pleased to share with Tesman his handwritten manuscript of enlightenment, but subsequently he visibly begins to come apart as he is whipsawed between the dismissive Hedda and a desperately adoring Thea.
There was no Scandinavian reserve. Director Martinez moves characters close to one another. Hedda looms over Thea and at one point abruptly pulls their chairs close together. Women join hands; Thea reaches for Lövborg's chest. The men are less emotive, but once Judge Brack finally sees that Hedda is within his clutches (he knows she's guilty of giving Lövborg the pistol that killed him in a brothel), he puts his heavy hands on Hedda.
Reflecting upon this production, particularly on the absolute lack of elegance and ostentation, it occurred to me that the audience was actually perceiving this world as Hedda must be seeing it. Their viewpoint was from within her disturbed mind. Hedda literally does not see the expensive furniture that was purchased so carefully and so dearly by Aunt Julia. Hedda has no respect for Julia, a character decades older than she, so Caroline Williams used few movements and little makeup to suggest the age difference. The relative confusion of costume suggested Hedda's indifference to style and to consistency of behavior or dress. Llailan Bennett as George Tesman and Cody Bae Claussen as Lövborg have no Nordic traits whatsoever; Hedda is completely alienated from those characters.
Only William Swift as Judge Brack is solidly real throughout, as a sententious bon vivant and buddy to Tesman and eventually as a #METOO nightmare. These may not have been the intentions or director or actors—still, production values send messages, even when coming from broke thespians.
I have one complaint, and it's a serious one. I sat in the front row of the Chambers Theatre, a high domed conference space furnished with straightback chairs. At the intermission the woman seated next to me said, "Excuse me, do you understand what they're saying?" We were no more than twenty feet from the actors most of the time.
I'd feared that my own ear had given out on me. The problem instead was that most of the cast members were speaking their lines to one another rather than to the audience. Two elements were lacking much of the time: projection and articulation, key to persuading the audience to adhere to their part of the bargain that is the willing suspension of belief, the unspoken agreement to ignore the fact that what's happening is not real. My new acquaintance told me she'd asked someone to tell the actors to speak up; but the second half was just as much a blur of half-perceived dialogue as the first. The men were more audible than the women, but only William Swift had the voice, the phrasing, and the presence to make every syllable heard.
October 22 - October 31, 2021
121 N. Main Street
Inspired Minds Arts Center
Buda, TX, 78710