Over the years, the Westside Rep has never left itself open to the criticism of having played it safe in its programming, having tackled a spectrum of works from seldom-produced Gorky dramas to light comedies by Coward. Their recent staging of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler offered an engaging and emotionally substantive revival of the old warhorse.
First worth dwelling on is the choice of translation -- by Eva Le Gallienne, one of the grandes dames of the American stage. The script's greater playability, spoken facility -- its feel as a working script -- betray an actor's authorship. Academic versions of the play have tended to an arch wordiness that may work on the page but, on the stage, allows (sometimes encourages) the audience's minds to wander at pivotal points. Le Gallienne's work retains all the Ibsen's penetrating psychological perceptions and poetic bleakness. But she also makes the play work as well for a modern audience as it did for one of the 19th century without dumbing it down or sacrificing its thematic heart.
Director Peter Ruffett also had a fine, sensitive feel for the personal dynamics among the characters, out of which emerge the play's messages about both outdated social constraints on women and self-destructive drives within ourselves.
This was nowhere more evident than in Danielle Rayne's memorable performance in the title role. Like Laclos's Marquise de Merteuil, Hedda is a brilliant woman whose formidable cunning, denied a more fulfilling outlet by the norms of her time and social strata, finds expression in the destruction of other people's happiness (more specifically the engineering of her former lover's suicide). Rayne's reading clearly appreciated the complexity of the emotional cross-currents at work within this woman's soul: flashes of inner fire alternated with glimpses of an unbearable spiritual desolation. As Lovborg, Hedda's ex-flame, Bill Kemp had the perfect blend of self-consuming emotional intensity that makes the character the ideal victim for her machinations. As Tesman, Hedda's milquetoast scholar husband, Christopher Cappiello took a role too often played for shallow comic relief and, while certainly humorous in the character's obtuseness, also found the roots of tragedy in so myopic a figure. Of the seven-person cast, only Rob Donaldson's Judge Brack was something of a disappointment. A touch monochromatic in his reading, he tended to telegraph his malevolent intentions. The entire cast, though, was well-spoken, with clearly polished technique.
The performance space at the Westside is worth mentioning insofar as it bears upon the overall feel of the staging. The house is tiny, but felt cozy rather than cramped and imparted a palpable feel of intimacy to the action on the stage. Seeing as the last couple of Broadway productions of Ibsen's works felt very diffused in their respective large houses, perhaps the playwright's texts are better accommodated by a smaller-scale mounting.
Costumes and set by Tom Lynch conveyed a lesson. Since the mid-'70s, a backlash against the hyper-realistic tradition in staging Ibsen led to sets scaled down to minimalist, even symbolist skeletons. This approach was an interesting, worthy experiment, but, after 20 years, the jury is in on it. Lynch's weighty, overstuffed, decidedly naturalistic Victoriana were an integral part of Ibsen's dramatic mise-en-scene. Stuffy decor reflects the stultifying outlook of conservative pedants like Tesman. Shoestring budgets notwithstanding, a director should not throw away so important an avenue of expression as a realistic set affords.
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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