Flavorful Bits and Pieces Amidst the Literary Jumble of
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler begins with the final minutes of a stage production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, ending with its off-stage pistol shot and announcement that Hedda has committed suicide. Shortly thereafter, the actual Hedda awakes as she has done repeatedly since the play was first produced, and will continue to do over and over again ad infinitum until the play becomes forgotten. Each time, Hedda awakes her memory of events after she first committed her scripted suicide have been erased. Where is she? "A special place ... The Cul de Sac of Tragic Women." It seems to be some sort of literary hell or purgatory. Hedda is tended to by her husband and survivor George Tesman and the Hedda-smitten Eilert Lovborg, whom she had murdered. For Hedda is somehow fated to forever remain the tragic Hedda Ibsen created, reliving the role which Ibsen created for her.
For some time, Hedda has been aided and accompanied by other specters from literature. Most prominent is her servant, the American southern stereotypical "Mammy" of Gone With The Wind. Among other examples of the stereotype, Mammy will morph into the Aunt Jemima of pancake fame; and sick and tired of being reviled, she will throw off her bandana and demure period clothes, transforming herself into red hot singer-dancer Shamari Robinson ("... and I ain't goin'"). Another companion of Hedda is the blood-soaked Medea still killing her children and taking a certain pleasure in the feeling of power that this gives her. There is also a black "Lady in Pink", who describes herself in one rant as "Cleopatra and Nefertiti (jammin' down the Nile)". Awaking from this dream of her past, she adds that she is now a victim of her abusive, behaving bad, black man. The Lady in Pink attacks Mammy for her subservience to white people.
Hedda Gabler, Mammy and Medea are distressed at having to live perpetually with their reviled personas. Tesman informs them that only their authors can change them, and that the authors live in The Furnace. So off they go into the mists and smoke to journey there. Along the way, they encounter more tortured characters. Among these are Cassandra, bemoaning about no one believing her prophecies, several Jesuses (select the one that you like best), Hamlet and Ophelia, Tosca, Dorothy Gale, The Lotion Lady selling skin emoluments (I have no idea what her inclusion is all about), Star Wars' Jar Jar Binks, and a pair of gay men circa 1968 named Patrick and Stephen, among too many other others. Patrick and Stephen will put knowledgeable, long time theatregoers in mind of
The Boys in the Band, even though no characters bearing those names appear in that play, and these two guys are comparatively happy and supply a large proportion of the evening's fun with theatre-oriented humor. Oh, I almost forgot, right at the beginning, Icarus flies into the sun. Again.
What happens when our protagonists emerge from The Furnace? Do their fates change? Can we change our lives? If we could, would our lives be any better? How does literature and theatre effect our lives? Playwright Jeff Whitty, best known as co-author of the Tony Award winning book for Avenue Q, has many interesting and clever ideas to share with us. There are any number of hilarious and thought provoking thoughts bandied about here.
Those attracted to this mind teasing play who are willing and able to overlook the lack of internal logic in its situation, structure and plot, may well find it to be a literary hoot. However, Jeff Whitty has overloaded his comedy with too many characters, any number of whom are present only to provide shtick. He has not provided us with any reason to care about them. The subjects of racism In America and the culture of the Golden Age of Hollywood inherent in the character of Mammy do draw us in a bit, but this is because of our essential interest in those issues, not because of anything fresh or striking about them in the play.
Director Mark Spina keeps the entire imbroglio at an appropriately hectic pace. He has also assembled a talented cast. The hilarious Liz Zazzi, who can do zany as few others can, nicely employs arch exaggeration to enliven the insufficiently colorful, straight woman role of Hedda Gabler. Rasha Jay takes full advantage of the myriad comedic opportunities offered by the role of Mammy while always keeping track of the ambivalence and pain that Mammy feels. Gary Glor plays George Tesman with the rational and serious tone which provides an anchor for the lunatic humor exploding all about him.
The other members of the cast perform multiple roles. Rick Delaney, who dutifully plays Ibsen's Eilert Lovborg, displays his comic chops in several male and female roles. Rachelle M. Dorce lets out all the stops as The Lady in Pink. Barbara Guidi amuses as Cassandra. Jason Gillis (Patrick) and Dennis DaPrile (Steven) provide most the entertaining and consistent laughs with their gay and theatre centric humor.
Mark Spina and his Theatre Project are treasures of the New Jersey Theatre. Via Theatre Project, they have brought us outstanding productions of cutting edge, sometimes controversial plays which would otherwise not crossed the Hudson River to move us, enrich us, and make us laugh. The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler is Theatre Project's first production of the new season in its new permanent home at the comfortable Burgdorff Center in Maplewood.
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler continues performances (Evenings: Friday and Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 2 PM) through October 7, 2012, at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood, NJ 07040; online: www.thetheaterproject.org; box office: 973-763-4029.
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler by Jeff Whitty; directed by Mark Spina