by Lynn on August 31, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Hedda Gabler

At the Store Front Theatre, 955 Bloor St. W.

Written by Henrik Ibsen
Directed and adapted by Harrison Thomas
Set design by Desiderata Theatre
Set dressing by Lynne Griffin
Costume design by Desiderata Theatre
Lighting by Desiderata Theatre
Sound by Tallan MD
Starring: John Chou
Lea Diskin
Lauren Horejda
Lynne Griffin
Carmine Lucarelli
Cameron Sedgwick
Anne van Leeuwen

A bold, eye-brow-raising interpretation of Ibsen’s landmark play.

The Story. Henrik Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler in 1890. It’s about Hedda Gabler, General Gabler’s pampered daughter. She had grown up expecting to live her adult life in the kind of comfort and wealth she enjoyed when she lived with her father. She seemed to be attracted to men of questionable reputations but she was terrified of scandal. She therefore marries George Tessman, the first respectable man who asked her. Tessman is a good natured, nebbishy scholar who is counting on an academic job to keep Hedda in the style to which she has been accustomed. They have just returned from their six month honeymoon, and are settling into their new, grand home. Tessman bought it with the financial help of his Aunt Julia and Judge Brack, a family friend.

She should have everything she wants to make her happy, except she’s bored with her life with Tessman, and agitated because she’s also pregnant.

They are visited by Thea Elvsted, with whom Hedda went to school. Thea has heard that her friend Eilert Lovborg has come to that town and she’s followed him. Thea was a nanny for old Mr. Elvsted’s children at a town some distance away. She eventually married him. Eilert was the children’s tutor. Thea and Eilert had a relationship. She helped Eilert reform his wild ways and was his muse as he wrote a successful book. To make matters interesting, Hedda had a passionate relationship with Eilert years before, but again, because of the possibility of scandal that would result from her keeping company with the wild Lovborg, Hedda called it off.

All the parties eventually meet in Hedda’s house. Eilert arrives to reacquaint himself with Hedda and finds Thea there. Judge Brack arrives to insinuate himself into Hedda and Tessman’s lives with more focus on Hedda. Tessman hears that there might be a competition with Lovborg for the job Tessman feels is his. The walls are closing in on Hedda. She had always wanted to control another person’s destiny and thought that Lovborg’s life was hers to control. She is proven wrong with terrible results.

The Production. Harrison Thomas, the director/adapter of the play has re-imagined both Tessman and Lovborg as students of biology instead of history as per Ibsen. Mr. Thomas’s vision of the world of the play “is simultaneously a Victorian drawing room, a monument to decay, and a giant terrarium,” as he says in his program note. Mr. Thomas also says his vision focuses “on insects as the manifestation of pure need and biological imperative discovering beneath the antiquated veneer of the play, a world of sex, death, hunger and fear.”

The furniture is dark and masculine. A leather sofa is upstage centre. There are other dark chairs. There are a few paintings on the walls. There are various tanks with insects in them, one assumes.

Tessman and Berta the maid enter, laden down with luggage. Hedda and George have just returned from their honeymoon. Hedda follows nonchalantly carrying a large framed portrait of her father (we learn this later). She gives the painting to Berta, vaguely indicating with a wave of her hand where she wants the painting hung, then wanders off to bed.

When Auntie Julia arrives the next morning she is dressed in a bright red two piece suit and a rather garish hat. She also wears a glittery brooch in the shape of an insect. I thought that was interesting.

That whole look seems odd and vulgar for a benign aunt. As Auntie Julia, Lynne Griffin is both motherly to George and occasionally brittle to Hedda. She is a woman who has opinions and perception. She displays both before she leaves.

Judge Brack arrives next to say hello. He sits talking to Hedda and for their whole scene eats continuously from a plate of grapes and pears on the table in front of him. He reaches over to snip grapes one at a time off a cluster, popping each grape in his mouth, eating it noisily while sitting nonchalantly talking to Hedda. Later he rises and chomps on a pear, leaving it half-eaten in the plate when he’s finished.

Matters heat up. Lovborg rises to the challenge of attending Judge Brack’s little party ignoring the temptations that will be there to challenge him. He loses his manuscript not knowing Tessman has found it. Hedda burns it and now thinks she can control Lovborg to do the right thing as a consequence.

The production is a bit rough on the opening. A sound effect of a gun firing doesn’t happen the first time a gun fires, but fortunately does for the crucial second time it’s supposed to go off. Dialogue comes out breathy and rushed. I trust matters will settle as they do the run.

As Hedda, Lauren Horejda is striking and confident. As Tessman, Cameron Sedgwick is boyish and under Hedda’s thumb for most of the play. He comes into his own when he decides to honour Lovborg’s work.

I think it a bold decision of Mr. Thomas to have Judge Brack (Carmine Lucarelli) press himself onto Hedda when he does in Act II, to raise the stakes. It’s just that I think that aggressive move comes a bit too early and diminishes the power of the subtle comment that Brack will come and visit her every night while Tessman works elsewhere. We should be building to this scene, not have it sidetracked.

Comment. It’s always interesting to see the work of a young artist at the beginning of his/her career and certainly a young artist with as much curiosity, intelligence and tenacity as Harrison Thomas. He is also an actor. But it is directing where I think his heart is. I found his reimagining of Romeo and Juliet earlier this year engaging and muscular in its vision. The same drive and intellect is obvious in this production of Hedda Gabler. And while I certainly applaud his bravery in rethinking Ibsen’s play by setting it in the insect world, I don’t think it works because the play does not support the thesis.

Insects live in a defined, formal world. The rules are clear. It’s the survival of the fittest and that’s that. There is no sentiment, no angst, no boredom. Humans live in a fuzzy, messy world full of one person trying to overpower another, manipulation, sentiment, angst, anger, disappointment, and boredom. That’s true in abundance in Ibsen’s play. And aspects Mr. Thomas says are in the insect world at its base (sex, death, hunger and fear) are certainly clear in the human world, so why stray away from them in a world that is tangential to Ibsen’s intent?

Ibsen wrote Tessman and Lovborg as students of history for a reason. Tessman is fascinated with the most arcane aspects of history without even a clue about their application to the wider, ‘real’ world. When Lovborg says that his next book will be about the future, Tessman says innocently, “But we don’t know anything about the future.” And he’s totally right. He doesn’t know anything about the future because he hasn’t seen an application of history to it. Isn’t the future only history repeated? Aren’t we told, “Know thy history, for it shall repeat itself? “ All this is news to Tessman but not to Lovborg, who does know how history is really the future repeated. To Tessman’s credit, he does admire and appreciate Lovborg’s scholarship and brains. Tessman’s calling is to honour Lovborg’s memory by organizing his work.

I can appreciate a director wanting to be provocative in his directorial choices, as Mr. Thomas does here, but sometimes a choice can backfire. For example, when Hedda first appears she is carrying a large portrait. Initially I thought she bought it on the trip and then instructed Berta about where to put it. But later it’s clear that this is her father’s portrait presumably brought from her father’s house to her new one. That makes no sense. The new house has been prepared for their arrival. That portrait would already have been there. They didn’t make a stop to the old house to get it. They came from the boat directly home. Does that mean she carried her father’s portrait with her for the whole of the six month honeymoon? I shouldn’t be wondering about these things.

When Brack arrives he is constantly eating from a fruit bowl, picking grapes from a bunch and noisily eating them. Is this to show his huge appetite for food as well as for Hedda? Perhaps to liken him to a praying mantis—a true predator? Ok, but the problem is that his eating so detracts from the actual scene between Hedda and himself that I can’t tell you a thing either of them said to one another for his pulling focus with every grape.

Later when Thea and Hedda have fallen asleep at Hedda’s while Thea waits for Lovborg to come and take her home, Hedda is awakened by Berta’s loud operatic singing of ‘o mio babbino caro.’ I believe that Lea Diskin, the actress playing her has that lovely operatic voice and would know that aria. I don’t for a second believe that Berta would know it.

A tiny point to conclude. Hedda loves the dangerous world of Brack and wants to hear about it since she daren’t dip into it. Brack loves regaling her with his life and keeping her company. They are in a sense alter-egos of each other. They would finish each other’s sentences in the same way. This is so clear when Brack and Hedda are talking and he mentions a triangle as a metaphor for his relationship with Hedda and Tessman, and that it’s like a train journey they are on. Then Tessman comes home at that point. Depending on the translation Brack says, “The triangle is complete.” Hedda says, “The train goes (moves) on. It is the same construction of the sentences for both, mirroring one another. In this production Brack says, “The triangle is complete.” Hedda says, “On goes the train” which is jarring and seems odd.

As I said, Harrison Thomas is a young director, feeling his way, thinking, questioning, pondering about the ideas of theatre. It’s interesting seeing him develop along his journey. I look forward to seeing what he does in the future.

Produced by Leroy Street Theatre and Desiderata Theatre Company

Opened: August 26, 2014
Closes: Sept 7, 2014
Cast: 7; 3 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

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