Ibsen’s Eternal, Flawed Pre-Feminist

Ibsen’s Eternal, Flawed Pre-Feminist

Orpheus’ is very off downtown, but at Studio, a divided electorate finds laughs

Sometimes even the bleakest drama can be a joyful experience. That’s certainly the case with the production of “Hedda Gabler” now at New York Theatre Workshop. The production is graphic and emotionally raw, but so courageous and consistent in its design, direction and acting choices that it makes Ibsen’s classic play seem like a contemporary indictment of our heartless, self-obsessed culture.

Director Ivo van Hove along with production designer Jan Versweyveld had the inspired idea to locate the play in an unfinished loft that dominates the stage with empty space—an ironic commentary on Hedda who feels that in marrying George Tesman she has trapped herself to a world of social claustrophobia. Hedda’s narcissistic romanticism sets in motion a series of events that attempts to destroy all around her, but she can’t stop the world. Life goes on—and so she stops herself through suicide.

The conclusion is horrible and upsetting, but also provides the reason the production is so ironically uplifting and so starkly beautiful. Though we are moved by tragedy, we see that destruction, like joy, is ephemeral. For all Hedda’s attempts to exercise power, the world goes on. The cynicism and manipulation, the power that man attempts to exert over the world causes only ripples; it is the diseased mind that makes them into waves. We can only do what we can do.

In addition to the design, including a TV set as an iconic metaphor for Hedda’s boredom, van Hove guided his actors into very contemporary behavior and physicality. The characters speak with the bored and flat inflections that seem to convey a distance from experience while underneath they are seething. The balance of vocal timbres and energies in this production is as finely detailed as the astonishing lighting, creating an integrated world that drives relentlessly—almost breathlessly—toward the climax.

There are some slight incongruities of plot in creating such a modern adaptation, but they are small and easily overlooked. Why Eilert Lovborg, whom Hedda ruins by destroying his manuscript, would have only one copy in an age of computers, for example, is incongruous, but the underlying tensions and motivations remain uncompromised.

The acting is uniformly outstanding. In particular, Elizabeth Marvel gives an incomparable performance as Hedda as a complex and disturbed woman. It is brilliantly understated and at times shocking, rich in nuance and subtext. John Douglas Thompson as Judge Brack, is a portrait of cold self-interest; her emerges as manipulative and hard, but also sexually appealing. We get why Hedda is so drawn to him. As Eilert, Glenn Fitzgerald is also extraordinary, teetering between redemption and destruction.

That’s ultimately what’s so thrilling about this production. Though the story is familiar, there is a sustained tension throughout. We are asked to walk that fine line between good and bad, between happiness and despair, success and ruin, right along with the characters, never knowing what will happen next or if it ever is––or ever was––safe.

On the other hand, I would like to keep you safe from the pop opera/liquor promotion called “Orpheus” now at HERE Art Center.

Though largely a disaster, the show does offer one or two redeeming elements. Daphne Gaines, who plays Persephone as she oversees a nightclub in hell––the piece is a modern re-telling of the Orpheus and Euridice myth––has a terrific voice, and a wonderful presence. She will be a star. The three women who play The Sirens are the only other competent members of the cast. The music by Nikos Brisco is interesting and compelling, but the rest of the show is an idiotic shamble. Its expensive look can probably be explained by the shameless, simultaneous hawking of a would-be cool vodka brand.

You know you’re in trouble the moment you open the program and see that three people “conceived” it, while another person “wrote” it. An incoherent book was the result. They have retold the story as if Orpheus were a rock star, Euridice his newly married wife, and he had gone into hell to try to bargain and fetch her back. All ends tragically—and not just for the characters.

You will know the underlying story better from your knowledge of opera or Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology,” than from anything presented on this stage. The tangled mess of a book suffers under its own cuteness, and the whole undertaking is just a bore of mythic proportions. Taylor Mac, who plays Orpheus, sings the role without inflecting a single consonant, which renders him completely unintelligible throughout, and his acting does little to make up for that.

My advice is that you spare yourself this waste of time.

On the lighter side, there’s some real entertainment going on. “Newsical,” which bills itself as the ever-changing topical musical comedy, is the latest in political entertainment that has the advantage of being genuinely funny and consistently entertaining. Propelled by a lacerating wit, Rick Crom’s show spoofs the news, and while it breaks no new ground with the form, it is still a lot of fun.

It’s delightful, for example, to hear people telling Barbra Streisand to shut up about her politics and just sing. A mini-musical about Martha Stewart is also full of laughs. The targets are easy to hit and obvious, but there is still an infectious fun about Michael Jackson confronting Peter Pan, not to mention the many political bits—including a repeated joke about Michael Moore.

Donna Drake has directed the fine cast, which includes Kim Cea, Todd Alan Johnson. Stephanie Kurtzuba and Jeff Skowron.

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