by Henrik Ibsen
American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco
Feb 9-March 11, 2007
Hedda Gabler has long stood beside Nora of A Doll’s House as an example of Henrik Ibsen’s women, hemmed in by the conventions of their society and longing to break free. But there is an important difference between the two; while Nora resolves her conflicts by escaping with the slam of a door, Hedda does the same with the click of a trigger. Nora is frustrated, not evil. Hedda, at least as she is portrayed by Rene Augesen at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, is quite a bit of both.
Augesen also starred as Nora at ACT, a very different performance than the one she is giving now. She is just as beautiful, equally graceful but far less sympathetic. The headstrong Hedda is thwarted by society’s strictures and fate – yes — but even more by her own choices. She has married the wrong man, the clueless scholar Tesman (Anthony Fusco), for the wrong reasons and, just back from her honeymoon, is already bored to tears. She repels the friendship of Tesman’s elderly aunt Juli (Sharon Lockwood in a non-comic role, for once) and Thea, an acquaintance from school (Finnerty Steeves), two of the only truly good people on the stage. When a former lover, Ejlert Lovborg (Stephen Barker Turner), once a brilliant drunken rake now turned serious scholar, comes back into her life, she literally drives him back to the bottle, willfully destroys the manuscript that would have made his name and offers him a pistol to aid in his suicide. As for Thea, who loved and collaborated with Lovberg on his book, eventually leaving a loveless marriage to follow him, she too has her hopes smashed courtesy of Hedda, her supposed “friend.”
What’s to like? Beauty is as beauty does, as my dear old grandmother used to say and this beauty does everybody, including herself, in. It’s fascinating to watch, just as you might watch a spider spin its web. Although flies and other innocent insects might get caught, the spider never does. But that’s a spider. Eventually, the web of lies and intrigue that surrounds Hedda’s manipulations catches her in its silken strands. The lecherous, oily Commissioner Brack (Jack Willis) gets a hold on her that amounts to blackmail and Hedda can see only one way out. Too bad, but her plight generates about as much sympathy as one would have for a poisonous spider.
The stylized production, fashioned after the paintings of Edvard Munch (The Scream) a fellow-Norwegian, contemporary and admirer of Ibsen, is lovely to look at, with a catwalk sometimes superimposed above the genteel fin de siecle drawing room (scenery by Kent Dorsey). At crucial moments and, as a kind of overture at the beginning, various characters pace the catwalk to the accompaniment of foreboding music (by John Gromada). This is a highly operatic, but rather strange choice by director Richard E.T. White. The whole atmospheric setup is that of Victorian melodrama, a conventional form that Ibsen is credited with breaking through with his realistic dramas.
Nevertheless, the actors perform Paul Walsh’s translation from the Norwegian with ACT’s usual professionalism and Augesen is indeed a wonder to behold in designer Sandra Woodall’s long split skirts and clingy gowns. If only her character was not so Bette Davis-nasty.