Alina Bokovikova, Art review, Bay Area theatre, Black actor, Black actress, Black woman, Black Women Matter, Britney Frazier, Carla Pauli, Cutting Ball Theater, Feminism, Francisco Arcila, Hamilton Guillén, Hedda Gabler, Heidi Carlsen, Henrik Ibsen, independent theatre, indie theatre, Jacquelyn Scott, Kunal Prasad, Liz Olson, Michelle Drexler, Norway, Norwegian, Paul Walsh, playwright, revisionism, revisionist, San Francisco theatre, Steve Thomas, Tenderloin, The EXIT on Taylor, Theatre review, Yury Umov
“I hold that man is in the right who is most closely in league with the future.”
– Henrik Ibsen, Letter to Georg Brandes (3 January 1882)
An artist has only so much control over how their work is interpreted, but at least they can answer questions when they’re alive. Once the artist has died, not even the most iron-fisted estate can protect the world from a great work being “re-envisioned” into something scarcely resembling the creator’s vision. Granted, fresh perspectives reveal a classic work’s continued relevance (or lack thereof), but forcing the square peg of an older work into the round hole of modern social mores is often a losing gambit.
This problem is apparent in Cutting Ball’s new production of Hedda Gabler.
The whole house is abuzz with talk of Jørgen Tesman’s new wife, Hedda. The daughter of the unseen General Gabler, Hedda married less for love and more to avoid spinster status. Still, she’s making the best of her new life. But when her scandalous past looks to derail her husband’s promising future, Hedda is forced into a position where the only choice of her own free will is one with lasting consequences.
There are times when it’s appropriate to add humor to a dramatic story. After all, life is neither wholly tragic nor wholly comical; even the heaviest tales have moments of levity. It’s another thing entirely to try to rework a straight forward drama into a slapstick comedy, which is what director Yury Umov has done with this production. The moment Berte the maid (Michelle Drexler) stumbles with a bouquet of flowers in the play’s opening minutes it becomes clear that Umov has decided to transform Ibsen’s most oft-performed drama into a Marx Brothers production. It doesn’t work.
Not only are the pratfalls out of place, but the performances are contradictory to Ibsen’s text (which, it should be noted, is well preserved by adaptor Paul Walsh). Everyone is played as such a scenery-chewing caricature that I’m honestly surprised that no one threw a pie. If this version of Brack (Steve Thomas, made a commissioner here, rather than the traditional judge) had tied Hedda to train tracks and twirled his moustache, it would have easily fit the tone of the entire show.
Of course, had that scenario occurred, it would have been difficult to feel sorry for this Hedda anyway. The secret to Hedda, as written by Ibsen, is that she’s smarter than she lets on. As much as she’s subject to the will of others, her ability to adapt to situations shows that she can never be controlled. It’s part of what makes the play’s infamous final act so shocking – she’s finally backed into a corner from which there’s no escape. But this Hedda, as played by Britney Frazier under Umov’s direction, has two modes: 1 – swagger with a Cheshire cat-grin; and 2 – steel-faced detachment. It’s clear that they were going for a more “empowering” interpretation than earlier versions (casting a Black woman in the title role amongst a mostly-White cast adds to this), but they’ve actually gone the other direction and presented her here as a conniving black widow. Just as the rest of the cast come off as cartoonish villains, our would-be heroine comes off as someone’s idea of a “badass chick” rather than a fleshed-out human being.
The production is much more successful in its set design by Jacquelyn Scott. The nearly-all-white set consists of four sets of rolling patio doors to indicate setting changes. I’m not entirely sure what the hanging flower bouquets represent, but they give a lovely contrast to the white set pieces. Maybe that was the point? Just as the lead actress – a Black woman – is meant to stand out against he mostly-White co-stars, it would make sense that the set design follows suit.
So too does the costume design by Alina Bokovikova. You can’t tell from the photos above (I assume the costumes weren’t completed when they photos were taken), but the majority of the cast are dressed in steampunk-suggestive attire: Jørgen starts off in a thick pair of industrial goggles; Berte is always seen in a brown leather apron; etc. The exception, of course, is Hedda, whose attire suggests the floral rather than mechanical.
Although the slapstick tone is off, sound designer Cliff Caruthers seems to be having fun with the playlist he’s selected for transitions. The play begins with The Magnetic Fields’ “How Fucking Romantic,” later adding classics from The Foundations, Tiny Tim, Nina Simone, and Bobby Vinton. There’s also a quiet electronica score in the first act that seems to vanish afterward. Hamilton Guillén’s lights are effective, but the constant back-and-forth switching of them – particularly in Hedda’s first scene with Brack – came off as overkill.
All in all, solid on the production-side.
It’s a tempting bit of hubris to think that having a modern outlook means ours is more enlightened. The problem with that is failing to recognize the value of the original. This production of Hedda Gabler has the actors delivery serious lines silly, joyful lines angrily, and uses unnecessary pratfalls for blocking that only requires a character walk from one point to another. None of this adds to Ibsen’s work, nor reveals anything about it.
It’s a shame really: there’s a lot of talent in both the cast and crew. If there’d been just as much respect for the source material, the result would have been something special.
Hedda Gabler‘s regular run begins this Thursday the 26th at The EXIT on Taylor.
For tickets and information, please visit Cutting Ball.