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Heddatron

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If you've ever thought your life was a one-way ticket to Dullsville, be grateful you're not Hedda Gabler or Jane Gordon.

You've undoubtedly heard of Henrik Ibsen's terminally dissatisfied heroine. But the other? She's a middle-class housewife from Ypsilanti, Michigan, trudging through her own insufferable day-to-day existence of home, husband, and child, and filling her hours reading of Hedda's travails. Until she's kidnapped by robots.

Were the company spinning Jane's story any other than Les Freres Corbusier, and were Elizabeth Meriwether's play titled anything other than Heddatron, this might be surprising. But Les Freres Corbusier has already slaughtered such sacred cows as L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Moses, so when these robots materialize to yank Jane from her humdrum existence, the play's stranger events (of which there are many) have long ceased to shock you.

Not that specific shock is required: Throughout, Heddatron delights in - and elicits delight from - the schizophrenic jumblings of drama, theatrical and domestic, and science. Upon entering the theater at the under-renovation HERE Arts Center, for example, a satirical educational television broadcast acquaints you with the concept of the Singularity: the theoretical moment (not far away, we're told) when robots achieve sentience and human intelligence stops being the Earth's driving force. (The preponderance of jukebox musicals might indicate we've already reached it.)

As the play wackily unfolds, this becomes the key idea behind every aspect of it: As the robots assert their dominance, Meriwether's characters must cope with their own debilitating dehumanization.

Jane (Carolyn Baeumler) is barefoot, pregnant, and suicidal. Her husband, Rick (Gibson Frazier), is a corporate drone tied up in his own concerns. Her daughter, Nugget (Spenser Leigh), whose school report about Ibsen's battles on behalf of female independence hilariously frames the evening, just wants her old mom back. After Jane's kidnapping, Rick's coarse brother Cubby (Sam Forman) becomes obsessed with helping Rick rescue her, while a film student (Ian Unterman) dispassionately documents the ordeal on video.

They're all so set in their ways that when Jane must officially begin her penance - performing the role of Hedda with her metal captors as costars - seeing Cameron Anderson's witty, adaptable set dissolve into the George Tesman drawing room is almost anticlimactic. And because Jane's robotic castmates, manipulated by offstage remote controls, can't keep from bumping into her, the walls, or each other, seeing a seemingly programmed existence become an actually programmed one is less horrifying than might be ideal.

But given that technology hasn't yet advanced far enough to make them absolutely realistic (thank God), they do remarkably well at highlighting both Jane's drudgery and the latent symbolism of Ibsen's writing: George Tesman's aunt is rendered as a pair of metal silhouettes; the maid is but a mechanized broom. As Jane is forced to recite Hedda's lines, without variation or improvisation, Ibsen's message about the deadening impact of everyday life emerges more vividly and entertainingly than in most productions that "update" the play for the sake of contemporary relevance.

The primary connection to the traditional Hedda is the presence of Ibsen himself (the droll Daniel Larlham). The Norwegian playwright is battling his harpy of a wife (the stentorian Nina Hellman), a German sexpot maid (Julie Lake), the raffish August Strindberg (Ryan Karels), and his own morals. Should we believe that Ibsen, as trapped in his life as Hedda, wrote his great masterpiece of liberation as a quiet plea for his own?

For that matter, should any of Heddatron be taken seriously? Certain clues - chief among them, Nugget's school report, which reduces the Well-Made Play and the complete Ibsen and Strindberg catalogs to italicized question marks - would indicate not. But the ferocity with which the cast and their director, Alex Timbers, approach and deconstruct every hodge-podge element in the story suggests that maybe everything shouldn't be so easily brushed aside.

Perhaps Ibsen wasn't as emasculated as Larlham presents him, but the actor's mammoth muttonchops and twisted takes on everything from sex to dramaturgy (his primary writing aid: dolls) adroitly merge the real, the fantastic, and the downright absurd. Frazier and Forman paint devastating portraits of contrasting suburban oppressiveness, and Leigh strikes all the right notes of pre-adolescent cluelessness and older-than-her-years concern.

Ironically, it's in Jane that the play's contradictory elements don't cohere into a satisfying character. Baeumler approaches her role with no less gusto than do her castmates, but Jane is the least developed and most reactionary figure onstage. Despite how much is said and done about her, a few major pieces of the jigsaw of her personality always seem missing; this makes it difficult for her or Timbers, whose scattered staging otherwise nicely complements the inventive, stream-of-consciousness script, to maintain the play's emotional center.

So Baeumler and Jane don't make an ideal Hedda. But isn't that the point? Thrust into a role for which she's grossly underequipped, and despite being cast strictly to type, Jane finds the fabric of her new reality unraveling much as her old one did. Her locale has changed, but she needs to, as well. This time there are only more robots.

The one playing Judge Brack, the size and shape of an ottoman and "wearing" a black robe and powdered wig, even bears a prominently placed can of V-8. For those who caught Ivo van Hove's Hedda Gabler at New York Theatre Workshop in fall 2004, it's a side-splitting in-joke. Even if you missed it, it's a cheerful reminder that theatre, like life, should be anything but mechanical.


Les Freres Corbusier
Heddatron
Through February 25
Running time: 70 minutes, with no intermission
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, one block below Spring Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix