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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Different Version of Hedda Gabler at American Conservatory Theatre

Also see Richard's reviews of Pippin and The Dying Gaul

Hedda Gabler
Jack Willis and René Augesen
American Conservatory Theatre is presenting Henrik Ibsen's controversial Hedda Gabler with a new translation by Paul Walsh and direction by Richard E.T. White. This version stars A.C.T. core member René Augesen who plays the role like the mother of all bitches. There is no saving grace in the character of Hedda as played by this talented performer. Ms. Augesen has the dangerous gleam of a Joan Crawford and a hint of Betty Davis doing The Little Foxes in the finesse of her delivery. She shuns any sedate Victorian mannerisms in favor of a more modern portrayal. There is a nervous, high energy about her performance as she sweeps about the room.

Ibsen wrote the play in 1890 and it had its first performance at the Residenz Theatre in Munich in January 31, 1891. European audiences were scandalized by the play since women were meant to be subservient to men. Predominantly male, conservative critics condemned the work as immoral. Hedda Gabler received the worst reviews of Ibsen's mature plays. The play was banned by many European countries for many years and Ibsen was ostracized from his native Norway for many years.

Many actresses have wanted to play the role of Hedda over the years. I saw the legendary Eva Le Gallienne play the role at the Cort Theatre during the winter of 1948 in Europe. Her performance still sticks in my mind as the greatest Hedda ever. Over the years I have seen Clair Bloom, Diana Rigg and Kate Burton give their versions of the role. The most recent was the amazing performance of Robin Goodrin Nordli at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival several years ago.

Director Richard E.T. White and Paul Walsh have installed many changes in this production. The opening features a dazzling, monstrous painting of a Norwegian fjord. There are three levels of scaffolding bridges on the upper half of the stage. On the upper most skywalk we see René Augesen as Hedda, fearfully and speedily walking. Each character in the play makes an emblematic appearance to what sounds like a film score by Bernard Hermann (actually written by John Gromada). The amazing set by Kent Dorsey slowly disappears as long interwoven ropes come down from the rafters to form the backdrop of the living room of Hedda and her newly acquired husband Jorgen. The living area is a typical late 19th century Norwegian room with a round stove on the far left side that becomes a part of the plot in the second act.

Hedda enters dressed in a modern black pants suit. Throughout the play she wears more modern day outfits while the rest of the cast wear strictly late 19th century clothes. The costumes by Sandra Woodall are authentic attire for the rest of the cast.

Paul White's translation has eliminated any Victorian melodrama; the dialogue is modern and very fast paced (here are times when you would wish the pace would slow down). Hedda's "bitchiness" is immediately telegraphed to the audience when her husband's aunt pays a visit. Ms. Augesen immediately gets into the role, especially when Hedda spies a floral hat misplaced on a stool and loudly proclaims that the maid must have left it, when the truth is that it is the maiden aunt's. What follows shows the true nature of Hedda for the rest of the play.

Anthony Fusco (Travesties, The Rivals plus many ACT productions) plays husband Jorgen like a little puppy dog. He is excellent as a man with a submissive obsession with his wife. Even his docile gestures toward the other characters are well played.

Jack Willis (The Little Foxes, Happy End, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is a terrific Judge Brack and he commands the stage whenever he appears. Finnerty Steeves (New York credits include Almost Maine, Tumor plus many roles in regional theatres) gives a touching performance as Mrs. Elvsted. Stephen Barker Turner (Luminescence Dating and Nicholas Nickleby at Cal Shakes) gives a strong and passionate performance as Ejlert.

Sharon Lockwood (A Christmas Carol, The Rose Tattoo, The Royal Family) gives, once again, a fine performance as the motherly aunt Miss Juliane Tesman. Barbara Oliver (26 productions at Berkeley Rep beginning in 1969) is effective in the small role of Berte, the maid.

Hedda Gabler plays through March 11th at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-749-2228 or on line at www.act-sf.org. A.C.T.'s next production will be the world premiere of Philip Kan Gotanda's After the War March 22nd through April 22nd. That will be followed by the West Coast premiere of David Harrower's Blackbird opening on April 27 and running through May 27th.


Photo: Ken Friedman


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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