Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, in a new adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz from a literal translation by Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Scenic design by Alexander Dodge. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Jerry Yager. Original music composed by Peter Golub. Cast: Kate Burton, Harris Yulin, David Lansbury, Jennifer Van Dyck, Maria Cellario, Angela Thornton, and Michael Emerson.
Hedda Gabler was Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's last great experiment in realism before his decline into the introspective and disturbing symbolic drama of The Master Builder and John Gabriel Borkman. Consensus dictates Hedda is nothing if not a powerful indictment of, among other things, the attractions and dangers of intellectual arrogance. However, theatregoers at this current revival of Hedda, in a new adaption of the play by Jon Robin Baitz, which opened last night at the Ambassador Theatre, won't be exposed to pure Ibsen.
Jon Robin Baitz has seen fit to give us a sensationalist, almost melodramatic take on this classic play, offering an up to the minute white trash trailer park set of mores and motivations in place of Ibsen's original grand vision and poetry of expression, with a thin, brittle veneer of period pretension which is repeatedly shattered through the evening by grating and wildly inappropriate verbal and emotional anachronisms. Baitz has not only failed to genuinely modernize this Hedda, but has in effect diminished the original almost beyond recognition. Intellectual arrogance indeed!
Happily, the main attraction of this misguided production of Hedda isn't the play itself, but its star, the astonishing, ethereally beautiful, magically and incandescently alluring Kate Burton. If you want to really understand what the word star meant half a century ago, how actresses the likes of Gertrude Lawrence and Lynn Fontanne created legends which live to this day, drop by the Ambassador Theatre and see how Kate Burton makes an entrance, how she casually crosses the stage with barely veiled intent, how she laughs to dispel suspicion, how she commands the stage at every moment with charm and grace. It's all finely studied technique, of course, but technique deployed by an actress of overwhelming talent and taste. Even in the play's last moments, the final image is not one of a defeated woman, but of a great queen at ease on her throne.
It takes strong actors to share a stage as equals with Burton, and Angela Thornton (Miss Julia Tessman), Michael Emerson (George Tessman), Harris Yulin (Judge Brack), David Lansbury (Eilert Lovborg) and Jennifer Van Dyck (Mrs. Elvsted) all meet the various demands of their roles with success. Of particular and pleasurable note, Michael Emerson's finely sustained portrayal of Hedda's husband and Jennifer Van Dyck's subtle hints at barely controlled panic and anguish.
Alexander Dodge's elegant set is given beautiful dimensions by Kevin Adams' lighting design. The costumes, by Michael Krass, make the appropriate statements without too much fuss. Nicholas Martin's direction is straightforward and uncomplicated, with only a few too many lengthy pauses.
Overall, this Hedda Gabler is a wonderfully guilty pleasure, not to be taken too seriously.