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Chicago by John Olson

Hedda Gabler
Raven Theatre Company

Hedda Gabler
Mackenzie Kyle and
Claudia Garrison

The company had the nerve to schedule their press opening on a Sunday night opposite a new episode of "Desperate Housewives." In the age of TiVo, it wasn't such a sacrifice—I only had to put off my viewing of the doings on Wisteria Lane for a few hours. Even if home video recording had not been invented, though, Raven's production of the Ibsen classic would have been a worthy substitute. Could there be a more desperate housewife than Hedda Gabler Tesman, the former glamour girl and socialite married to a college professor of middling talent and means and bored to tears though she's been given everything she's desired? Surely Hedda Gabler is a model for "Housewives" Gaby Solis, who uses her wiles and sex to manipulate the men around her.

In a further parallel to Sunday night TV, the adaptation of Gabler Raven performed was written by Jon Robin Baitz, creator of the "Housewives" lead-out show on ABC, "Brothers and Sisters." His dialogue gives the play a contemporary accessibility without quite becoming anachronistic. As directed by Michael Menendian, the cast deftly combines modern and period inflections in a way that keeps it in period while allowing the audience to identify more easily with the characters and emotions.

Though the social strictures of Ibsen's time—including the defining of women by the status of their husbands and subordination of wives to their spouse's control—may be less prevalent today, the psychology of his characters is no less fascinating. Hedda Tesman's drive to manipulate those around her is not entirely due to her desire to ensure that her husband George receives the promotion he needs to support her in the manner she deems essential. It is also borne of a need to control others and believe she is a person of consequence who can control their destiny.

Mackenzie Kyle's Hedda is alternately bored, manic, frightened and driven. In Kyle's multifaceted performance, Hedda can maintain appearances but at other times appear to be quite insane. She's threatening and not particularly likable, yet we see why others are drawn to her.

Ibsen drew his supporting characters around a dominant trait for each, and Menendian's performers juicily nail them. Ian Novak shows Tesman's essential weakness clearly—he uses a weak, high-pitched voice and displays a nervous energy that suggests he's never quite sure of himself. The tragic alcoholic Lovborg (yes, losing the only copy of his masterpiece while in a drunken state qualifies as "unmanageability") is played by Ian Paul Custer with a romantic bravado and sense of despair. Symphony Sanders plays Thea Elvsted with a nervousness bordering on panic. Jon Steinhagen has a droll perceptiveness about the proceedings. JoAnn Montemurro is maternal as Aunt Julia and Claudia Garrison is an insecure but intuitive maid.

The set design—portraying the elegant house Tesman has bought for himself and Hedda but which he can't afford—is gorgeously detailed and is ingeniously enclosed in a giant trunk which the maid Berte and Aunt Julia open as they prepare the home for the return of Tesman and Hedda from their honeymoon. Ms. Montemurro designed the detailed and convincingly period costumes. A distinctive and original score by composer Leif Olsen helps set a menacing mood.

Sure, Ibsen was providing social commentary and an exploration of some of the darker sides of the psyche. None of that means it can't be entertaining. As "Desperate Housewives" moves into summer reruns, Hedda Gabler will still be running (it's scheduled through June) and it could prove a satisfying substitute for those experiencing withdrawal pains.

Hedda Gabler will be performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through June 27, 2009. All performances take place at Raven Theatre's East Stage, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago. For tickets, visit www.raventheatre.com or call 773-338-2177.


Photo: Dean LaPrairie

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-- John Olson



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