Is Hedda Gabler a staple of high school theatre groups? While I've never seen Henrik Ibsen's classic play done at a high school, after taking in the New York Theatre Workshop production under Ivo van Hove's direction, I feel as if I have.
At least this is apparently what van Hove intended with this production, which runs through October 24. Though all of the characters in the play are played by adult actors, the majority of them spend their time carrying on like children: They throw temper tantrums (and objects), make funny voices for specious reasons, are subject to wild mood swings, and mercilessly torture the only people trying to act their age.
It's an intriguing way of approaching this play, which deals as much with the everyday insanities of life as it does the class differences between Hedda (here played by Elizabeth Marvel) and her new husband George Tesman (Jason Butler Harner), and how those differences affect their marriage. But while van Hove's attempts to update the show to the modern day are generally successful, he never completely justifies his choice to emphasize so strongly the adolescent - or, at the very best, collegiate - qualities of the show's central characters.
By the time the play ends and they've all been carrying on like spoiled brats for over two and a half hours, it's difficult not to wish that a few more adults had been invited to the party. The grown-ups present are the Tesmans' put-upon maid Berte (Elzbieta Czyzewska) and George's aunt Julia (Mary Beth Peil); though they try to maintain order and establish a code of behavior, by the end, they've both dissolved away, enabling the children work out their problems by whatever social, sexual, or violent means they will.
Because of the over-the-top youthfulness of the characters - which include Judge Brack (John Douglas Thompson), Mrs. Elvsted (Ana Reeder), and author Eilert Lovborg (Glenn Fitzgerald) - little of what happens seems of any particular consequence. George is a typical, callow youth, unfeeling about the dying relative his aunt cares for; Lovborg's manuscript, his life's work, seems about as important to him as a graduate thesis; and Hedda and George's reactions to it amount to little more than petty jealousy. When Brack, after discovering Hedda's complicity in the disappearance of Lovborg's book and his subsequent actions, pours a can of vegetable juice over her, it communicates less a loss of Hedda's power than a sorority hazing prank.
Little fault can be found with the performers, who all fit nicely into van Hove's vision, particularly Marvel, an expert at the detached emotionalism required by van Hove's concept. Everyone else is a shade more realistic, particularly Harner, who might even go a bit too far with his overriding precociousness. Peil and Czyzewska do an estimable job of maintaining their dignity in the face of the childish hijinks surrounding them, and provide a little much needed balance. Jan Versweyveld's design creates a new Tesman home that truly is new; it's as stark as can be, almost completely bereft of furniture and with walls that have yet to be painted. Kevin Guyer's costumes are more realistic than the set, but just as straightforward.
Overall, van Hove's production is solid, if unlikely to raise as many eyebrows - or hackles - as his infamous 1999 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, also at NYTW. Van Hove's deconstructionist take on Ibsen doesn't result in the revelation of many new ideas that haven't also been brought out in other, more traditional productions, and the lack of some sense of propriety on the part of the characters even dampens the impact of it all falling apart at the end. Van Hove's characters are all on self-destructive paths from the first seconds of the show.
At least very few of them are willing to hide anything, and this type of unflinching directness is probably the production's greatest strength. You never have to worry, for example, about Hedda's being unnecessarily impenetrable - you'll understand her implicitly at any given moment. But this all results in a play that seems far less colorful and nuanced than what Ibsen likely intended. Yes, Van Hove has brought Hedda Gabler down to earth, but the show would undoubtedly play better were that earth not located on a high school football field.
New York Theatre Workshop