Theater: Hedda Gabler at Harlequin Productions



Without going into boring details of interest only to myself, let me say that, so far, 2016 has not been a kind year to me. Between financial troubles and bad health, I’ve been struggling to stay productive and energized. I have no time for self-pity, and no patience with my own melancholy, nor am I one to blame others for my disappointments. I survived the financial troubles and am taking steps to improve my overall health. Now I need to focus on recovering my life momentum. For that reason, last week I wrote a ten-week bucket list. These are not the things I want to do before I die; they are the things I want to do during the next ten weeks. On Sunday, I checked off the first item from that list. I went to Harlequin Productions, a live theater company in Olympia, and saw Hedda Gabler.

I love live theater, but it had been years since I’ve been. Partly, the opportunity in Olympia isn’t as vast as I want it to be. There is Harlequin Productions, which does an excellent job with all their productions, but they are the only theater company in Olympia with regular productions. Much of what they produce, I find myself indifferent to seeing. In the past, I spent a vacation a year at Ashland, Oregon, where I would see three or four plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but I skipped that trip in both 2014 and 2015. So this night at the theater constitutes a return to a favorite pastime.

Hedda: I had simply danced myself out, my dear sir. My time was up.

Hedda Gabler (1891) is one of the last plays by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). According to those who measure such things, next to William Shakespeare, Ibsen is the world’s second most important playwright. (Despite my literary bent, I have no idea how such things are measured.) But it is confirmed, in part, by statistics. Worldwide, Ibsen’s plays are second only to Shakespeare’s in productions, and his play The Doll House (1879) is the most performed play in the world. He help found the Modernist school of theater. He influenced later playwrights like Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Miller.

Hedda Tesman née Gabler is not a likable woman, but she is a desirable one. She’s attractive and fashionable. All the girls want to be her friend, and all the guys…well, you know what the guys want! Though a character from the 19th century, she is very familiar to us of the 21st century. There is something very modern about her. She’s assertive, some would say aggressive, and moody. She expects the world to arrange itself for her desire, and for the most part, the world obeys. But beneath this confident facade, we sense suppressed pain and frustration, a world-weariness, confusion, and self-loathing. In the post-Freudian world, we recognize her as bipolar, perhaps suffering from post-traumatic-stress syndrome. Ibsen didn’t have the vocabulary to describe these psychological conditions, but no doubt he had witnessed the symptoms. And he knew about “Daddy issues.” He chose to title the play with her maiden name because he thought of her more as her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife. Her father is dead. Though the details of his death are never discussed, suicide is hinted.

Harlequin modernized the play by setting it in a contemporary-styled home in an upper-class neighborhood. The set was wonderfully designed, with a front living room, a pass-through fireplace, and a small dining nook in the back. There was a sliding glass door leading into the backyard. The stage could pivot so you could be looking through that glass door into the house. In fact, during one of the most dramatic scenes–as Hedda loses it–the stage kept spinning, giving us alternate views of the action from inside the house and from outside looking in. Literature is inherently voyeuristic; it involves peeping into the lives of fictional people. But this spinning stage makes the voyeur metaphor a reality.

The action takes place during two days in September, after Hedda returns from her honeymoon. She had married Jörgen Tesman, a scholar, who is as an unlikely husband to her as I would be to Paris Hilton. During these days, Hedda’s past, present, and future collide to force her to examine her life and desires, her hopes and fears, her choices and her realities. The seemingly happy return is interrupted when a former schoolmate, Thea Elvsted, visits to request Jörgen to keep an eye on and help another old friend, Ejlert Løvborg. Ejlert becomes Jörgen’s rival for both the professor position Jörgen covets and the affections of Hedda. Meanwhile there is Mr. Brack, who helped set Jörgen and Hedda up in a house they cannot afford, and who talk to Hedda about “triangles.” Somehow I don’t thing he means geometry.

Aaron Lamb adopted and directed the play. Helen Harvester plays Hedda. She’s matched on stage with Emily Fortuna as Thea, Josh Krupke as Jörgen, Chris Shea as Ejlert, and John Serembe as Mr. Barck. Walayn Sharples and Cat Hayes play supporting roles as Aunt Julianna and Berte, respectfully. The performances were competent, especially Ms. Harvester’s. I cannot think it is easy to portray someone who is socially vibrant by inwardly troubled, but throughout the play, she made us feel this duality.

For those readers who live in the Olympia area, Harlequin Productions will run this play until March 26, 2016. I recommend you see it. As for me, I’m glad to check off item one of my ten-week bucket list.

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