Sunday, December 10, 2006

Theatre Review: Hedda Gabler

Hedda Gabler, a production by Thomas Ostermeier
Brooklyn Academy of Music, December 2nd 2006

Hedda Gabler is quite easily my favorite play of all time. When I heard that BAM was doing yet another production (it seemed almost too soon) to follow last year's zeitgeist starring the brilliant Cate Blanchett, I was intrigued. Not only did it seem an incredible act to follow, but this production was being performed in German with English supertitles, and it was modernized. I had to see.

The star of the show was the set. In Ostermeier's production, Hedda and Tesman live in a Frank Lloyd-Wright-esque glass house (literally) with a key-lime sofa and concrete walls. The set pieces are mounted on a black stage which is fitted with hydraulics and turns a complete 360 degrees. As if that weren't enough to get theatre people going, a mirror has been mounted above the stage, so that no matter where the characters go, the audience can see them from all angles wandering about the house.

Katharina Shuttler, our Hedda, is a pixie of a woman. About two feet shorter than the lanky gawky Tesman played by Lars Eidinger, she flits around the stage like a perturbed tinkerbell, exuding the same sexuality as Nabokov's Lolita-deceivingly innocent and dripping with sex.

Mr. Ostermeier has also fitted this production with a soundtrack by the Beach Boys, and without an intermission, the small breaks after each Act are totally necessary--but rather than filling them with darkness or empty stage time, he has the concrete wall turn towards the audience and work as a film screen. One particularly interesting and touching scene was that of Hedda, in a car, driving down the highway while Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows" blasts from the speakers.

I've always read Hedda as a fucked up love-story of sorts. Lovborg and Hedda seem to share this undying hatred of the world and by the idiots that surround them, and there are lines that imply such a sexual connection that cannot be ignored. As Lovborg calls Hedda by her maiden name, “Will I ever be able to call you Hedda Gabler?” chills ran down my spine. Unfortunately, the only time the audience gets evidence of Hedda’s passionate connection to Lovborg is when she destroys the manuscript Mrs. Elvsted and he have labored over for so long. In this production, the manuscript is a laptop which Hedda places between her legs “Now I will destroy Lovborg and Nora’s child!” and smashes to death with a hammer. But the connection between the two former lovers seems lost when Hedda gives Lovborg the gun and tells him to “Make it glorious.” Shuttler is leaning against the wall in way that suggests she could care less whether Lovborg offs himself or not, regardless of it being glorious. The two actors were so far apart—I just wanted to walk onstage and push them together in some sort of romantic embrace, or at least one final touch or kiss. But then, this modern Hedda, and things are more complicated, I suppose.

Ostermeier’s production of Hedda is rife with sadism and humor, best illustrated by his interpretation of the last scene. We all know how it ends. BANG!!! Hedda retreats into the other room, and the ceiling mirror is tilted so the audience can’t see the final shot—Tesman says, “She’s playing with those pistols again…..Hedda?” Silence. As he smirks, he remarks, “She’s shot herself,” and laughs. Brack retorts, “What a naughty thing to do.” The audience, along with Brack, Tesman, and Mrs. Elvsted, all laugh as the stage rotates around to reveal Hedda, propped up one leg under the other, pistol wound to the temple, blood spattered all over the concrete.

Traditionally, Tesman usually walks off the stage, finds Hedda and runs screaming back into the main room, “She’s shot herself!” Upon which Brack replies, “What kind of a person who do such a horrible thing???” Curtain.

In this production, the three remaining actors go about their business putting together Lovborg’s notes, as the stage rotates again and again, “God Only Knows,” comes back on, silently mocking Hedda’s suicide—since life certainly goes on without Hedda. No one even notices that she’s dead!

I found myself laughing, just like the rest of the audience. In retrospect, though, I wonder, should we really be laughing at Hedda? Is her suicide a non-issue in today’s society, where women (sometimes) can get what they want without having to shoot themselves or stick their heads in an oven, their middle fingers an eternal “fuck you” to those who have done them wrong?

I’m not so sure. In 1890, Hedda was a girl who knew what she wanted. In 2006, Hedda’s a girl that doesn’t want anything—just only to not be surrounded by men who act like horny teenagers or lovestruck schoolboys. Hedda’s pistols are the symbol of power and control—she strives the whole play to feel the way she does with a warm gun in her hands. Do modern day women want the same power? Or are we still manipulating others and ourselves into thinking we’re content?

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