By Henrik Ibsen; translation by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Ivo van Hove
Production design by Jan Versweyveld
Starring Elizabeth Marvel, with Glenn Fitzgerald, Jason Butler Harner, Mary Beth Peil, Ana Reeder, John Douglas Thompson, Elzbieta Czyzewska
At the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4 th St., New York City
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Those who might instinctively recoil from seeing an Ibsen play, fearful that it will be the traditional 19 th-century repression-palooza complete with long dresses, frock coats and heavy dark furniture, can safely attend New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Hedda Gabler. Director Ivo van Hove and his long-time production designer Jan Versweyveld have transformed the theater into a bright, nearly all-white playing space. It has the plastered look of a just-finished but not yet painted room, and gives one the impression of being at the bottom of a whitewashed well — in other words, nowhere in particular.
This turns out to be an excellent environment for revealing the layers upon layers of Hedda Gabler and Hedda Gabler, the play’s destructive yet somehow pitiful protagonist. In an inspired, carefully controlled performance by Elizabeth Marvel that’s a literal and figurative striptease, she takes us inside the fascinatingly neurotic Hedda: bored, frustrated, hating to be touched and hating the child that’s most likely growing inside her, and able to find a creative outlet — her desire to make something beautiful — only in death.
Director van Hove, who also used Marvel to great effect as Blanche DuBois in a radically rethought Streetcar Named Desire at NYTW in 1999, orchestrates a strong cast in support of her Hedda: Jason Butler Harner as Hedda’s husband George Tesman, a tantrum-prone academic drone; Glenn Fitzgerald as Eilert Lovborg, the brilliant, dissolute drunk who shares a secret past with Hedda; John Douglas Thompson as hearty, sleazy, ultimately terrifying Judge Brack; Mary Beth Peil as merry martyr Aunt Julia; Ana Reeder as the contrasting nurturing female (and convenient plot device) Mrs. Elvsted; and Elzbieta Czyzewska as Berte, the maid who sees all and knows more than she’ll ever tell.
One of this far-from-traditional production’s strongest aspects is the way van Hove has the cast play each character’s emotional subtext as text. We’re cued in immediately, as Berte’s unhappiness at working for demanding new bride Hedda Tesman elicits wracking sobs from Czyzewska: all those repressed emotions and societal strictures that Ibsen railed against are there in the dialogue, but the emotions boiling underneath here get a chance to come out and play.
This turns out to be a viable way to play Ibsen, although it’s a high-wire act to depend on the psychology and strip away his social criticism. Another potential problem, and one that van Hove and company don’t entirely avoid, is that while Ibsen was terrific at creating complex, psychologically fascinating characters (especially his women), his playwriting skills often veered from the mechanical to the melodramatic, with frequent stops at the didactic. As many have pointed out, A Doll’s House is two-and-a-half acts of 19 th-century domestic melodrama, complete with blackmailers and long-buried secrets, and half an act of women’s liberation that’s so strong that the image everyone remembers is Nora slamming the door.
This Hedda, in a translation by Christopher Hampton, is more integrated but at times no less clunkily plotted. Nevertheless, having the cast play their supposedly carefully hidden emotions in full view often resonates effectively. There’s Aunt Julia, looming over nephew George as she gloats that his academic competitors (mostly Lovborg) are in retreat. Peil could be a witch exulting over a particularly well-cast spell, while Harner’s man-child, lying back on a couch with his legs spread, seems content to be incestuously seduced by this happy harpy.
Hedda is herself a role-player, albeit an increasingly panicked one. Marvel’s vocal control and her ability to change her look on a dime, from big-eyed innocence to calculating cruelty, takes the audience every step of the way into this divided self. She longs for her own identity yet chooses a dull, stifling marriage; she listens avidly to tales of drunkenness and dissolution yet is terrified of scandal; she doesn’t recognize her own power and instead resorts to the symbolic and actual power of her dead military father’s pistols (O.K. Sigmund, stop spinning, we get the Freudian imagery).
The risk van Hove and his company run with this inside-out concept, one that becomes more evident in the second act, is that not every character has Hedda’s depth. By dislodging Hedda from the Victorian social structures that limit her life choices — and by dislodging the play from the Victorian stage conventions that defined and limited Ibsen — van Hove sometimes loads too much weight onto the characters’ psychology as motivations for their actions.
For example, Lovborg’s anguish at the loss of his manuscript, his “child,” is genuine but one-note in an otherwise strong performance by Glenn Fitzgerald. Judge Brack’s humiliation of Hedda as the play nears its end is visually effective; he pours tomato juice on Marvel, who through the course of the play has stripped off a brown sweater and a pink overslip and is finally clad only in a short, white slip. But it comes off as a directorial gimmick — the modern equivalent of a black-caped bad guy twirling his mustache as he ties the heroine to the tracks.
Overall, though, van Hove and Marvel have revived Hedda Gabler in more ways than one. Don’t miss the chance to see her performance; you may not love the production but you’ll remember her intensity.