Thursday, March 23, 2006

Meh-da Gabler

I brought my friend Iago to last night's performance of Hedda Gabler at BAM, starring Cate Blanchett, because she is his wife "but doesn't know it," as he puts it. We're both theater professionals, both Cate fans, and both had read all of the reviews, good and bad - and as the bad appeared to have some legitimate beefs, we were nervous but ready to be wowed. It was certainly a promising start - the theater was packed, and star-studded. Sam Waterston sat several rows in front of us. Lauren Hutton poked me on the shoulder in the lobby, politely said, "Excuse me," and threw me a dazzling gapped smile on her way to the bathroom. We had good seats. The BAM Harvey theater is gorgeously decayed-looking and dramatic. The Aussie-accented "shut off cellphones" announcement (I guess they... kept the same stage manager from the Australia production? Were trying to remind you this show came from Sydney? None of the actors used their native accent...) came five minutes before the show started, so that people could go back to talking and be startled by the sudden jump to total darkness that signaled the start of the play.

I've never reviewed before - I sort of felt that as an actor, it was a conflict of interest, and hello, presumptuous, to present my opinion of someone else's performance. But I do have opinions. Boy howdy, do I. I have read the play and have done scene study work on it. I've never seen it performed, unlike Iago, who has a strong memory of a previous take on Hedda. More on that later. For those who don't know the plot: a spectacular woman (Hedda), after losing her remarkable father, and later her passionate soulmate (Lovborg) due to his disspated lifestyle and their unequal social positions, settles for marriage to a poor and mediocre academic (Tesman) and flirtation with an oily judge (Brack). When said lover returns to town, rehabilitated by the love of another woman not nearly as exciting as Hedda (Thea), Hedda takes it upon herself to destroy his life, driving a wedge between him and Thea; tauting him back to drink; destroying the only copy of the manuscript for his brilliant new book (which he wrote with Thea) and allowing him to think it is lost; then handing him a pistol and encouraging him to end his own life in poetic style. Instead, he accidentally shoots himself while confronting a prostitute and dies; Brack recognizes Hedda's pistol in Lovborg's dead hands and tries to blackmail her into becoming his lover; Thea and Tesman fervently band together to reconstruct the book with her notes. I don't think I'm giving anything away to say that Hedda shoots herself.

The set is gorgeous. I know at least one reviewer thought it ought to be more cramped and claustrophobic - to reflect the inside of Hedda's hedd, I guess - but it worked for me, especially since there is a conspicuous amount of talk about how Hedda and Tesman can't afford their home, and it looks expensive. The furniture looks spare and small by comparison. I certainly don't see the need to use the set to telegraph to the audience everything about the play in advance - in this production the music and the lead actress take care of that anyway. The set also leaves lots of room for pacing - which Cate does A LOT.

I'm just going to keep calling her Cate, because that's who she is in this production - she's certainly not Hedda. Even Iago was disappointed, complaining about her "bag of tricks," another favorite phrase of his. Iago said she performed Hedda as if she were a spoiled child, and that's pretty accurate, though I'd say more "sullen teenager." The lines that explain her performance the best are Thea's about Hedda's bullying when they were schoolmates, and pulling her hair. This Hedda IS a bully - she not only continues to pull Thea's hair as an adult, she physically knocks her down and climbs on top of her. She mocks everyone to their face, mimicking their voices; she plops herself all over the furniture and the floor and crosses her legs every time she sits, disregarding her gorgeous clothes; she drops things and doesn't pick them up; she taps her ring on a glass loudly throughout one of Lovborg's speeches; she hauls the servant around by the arm; and very early on in the play, she stares Tesman right in the face and tosses bunches of dead flowers out of a trash bag over her shoulder and all over the floor. He doesn't laugh.

We do. The mocking and the goofing is charming. Cate is charming. She's gorgeous. She looks great in the costumes. But we already knew that; she's a movie star. I laughed, but ultimately I didn't understand this charming bully, who clearly has everyone around her intimidated, even Brack, such that she behaves in a wildly inappropriate fashion all the time and no one ever says a word about it; who is able to talk a man into killing himself; and still is supposedly so powerless and trapped that she has to escape by ending her own life. This portrayal makes everyone else in the play look like drooling idiots - she's mean to them over and over again, and yet they love her and trust her with all kinds of secrets. This Hedda would've packed her remaining pistol, saddled a horse, and hit the road - she's not leaving behind anything she cares about after Lovborg dies.

Iago and I agreed that suicides are often driven by the belief that there is something unbearable and unchangeable in oneself, that cannot be escaped. For Iago, the something is that Hedda is a woman, and she doesn't want to be. She identifies with her father; she doesn't want to have children; she doesn't want to take orders. Thea takes strength in being a woman of her time (the play takes place in the late 1800s/early 1900s). Though she is physically weak and naive (and a hot mess - poor Justine Clarke is costumed like Mrs. Whatsit), she understands her power as a woman comes from being a muse, and men love her for her weakness and her ability to inspire. Hedda refuses to accept that power - and she could have it, by giving Tesman a child; by stringing Brack along or even by becoming his lover; by leaving Tesman and becoming Lovborg's muse. She is a woman who recognizes and bows to convention, but is utterly undone by the act of bowing.

(Incidentally, there's a portrait of Hedda's father on stage, and nearly every scene change starts or ends with a light on his face. I kept thinking why are they doing that? but I didn't get it until Iago and I talked. Hedda's father doesn't get much mention in this version of the play... I'd have to look at another translation to find out if that's just Ibsen, but Hedda does say, very tellingly, "I am my father's daughter." She used to go out riding with him every day, and there is no mention of Hedda's mother whatsoever - so I think we can assume Dad is important.)

Iago got much of this from watching Glenda Jackson's portrayal of Hedda - I did not see Elizabeth Marvel or Kate Burton attack the role so I can't use them - but Iago's description of it made things so clear to me, that I'm dying to find a tape and check it out.

To be fair: this isn't a bad production. I think the director (Robyn Nevin) has to take blame for failing to mold Ms. Blanchett's work. The supporting players are strong, competent, and in the case of Anthony Weigh as Tesman, more than that. Tesman is pretty sympathetic for a man who took a wife more or less as a trophy, steals a manuscript, helps his wife cover up its destruction, then uses its reconstruction to further his own glory. He gets laughs too, but earns them through a clear portrayal of his character instead of playing to the audience - at times I felt like Cate was just itching to do a take to us, like you see what I have to put up with? She is staged so that we miss nothing of her perfomance, even to the detriment of others in the scene, and it is incredibly nuanced and detailed - every reviewer commented on it, and it's true. Here's the thing, though - Ben Brantley probably got to sit right down front. Iago and I, though not in the nosebleed seats, were still twelve rows back, and while we were able to appreciate much of what she was doing, we have the movies if we really need see every expression on a character's face. In reading over the reviews of people who clearly sat closer to the action, I felt envious that I had missed what were apparently some truly surprising and revelatory moments because they were too subtle for me to catch. In theater, even the people in the cheap seats should be able to enjoy a good show.

I'm saying all this because I was not moved. Ibsen is profoundly painful stuff (I was working on one of his pieces not too long ago, and it included the crippling and death of a child, unrequited love, unfaithful and distant parents... and incest. Whoof). and to get lighter moments into the play is both vital and commendable. I didn't care much about these people though - I did feel sorry for the supporting characters for having to put up with this awful woman whom they are all trying so hard to love - but Hedda I really disliked. I could see where her cleverness and quipping and getting laughs was meant to make us all feel bad when she finally pulled the trigger - look at the wasted life of this brilliant creature - but if a smart friend came to me saying, "I'm going to kill myself because I'm surrounded by idiots," I would say, "Honey. Then leave."

I'm tempted to say this is the work of a movie actor, someone accustomed to providing a series of fascinating moments to work with, which the editor then shapes to make a story [looking back over Brantley's review I see he made some similar references to film editing]... but Blanchett is trained and accomplished stage actor. I think perhaps this is more a case of someone trying to make an iconic role her own. As we've learned from American Idol, trying to interpret a classic can get you a beating whether you play it straight-down-the-line (karaoke) or try to make it your own (novelty for its own sake). I'd rather have novelty than karaoke, especially at these ticket prices; but I guess I expect the people being paid this much money to have the intelligence to present something that's clever AND serves the play the author actually wrote.


posted by Addy @ 3/23/2006 11:31:00 AM |


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