ORLANDO – As he was directing an upcoming production of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play “Hedda Gabler,” Eric Zivot said he kept thinking back to two very important women in his life.
“I am the son of an unusually capable mom, and the brother of an unusually capable sister,” Zivot said, noting that he first discovered the Ibsen play more than two decades ago, and has long harbored ambitions to eventually bring this dramatic piece to a local audience.
“I’ve been approaching this play for 25 years,” Zivot said. “I fell in love with it and I’ve wanted to either be in it as an actor or direct it. When Mad Cow asked me to do it, after I took several deep breaths to make sure I didn’t collapse, I said yes.”
The Mad Cow Theatre at 105 S. Magnolia Ave. in downtown Orlando is now producing “Hedda Gabler,” and the production opens on Friday, then plays Thursdays through Sundays until March 25. A talkback session with the cast and creative team will take place after each Thursday and Sunday performance.
“Hedda Gabler” was first published in 1890 by Ibsen, the famous Norwegian playwright, and it premiered in 1891 in Germany – mainly to negative reviews. In the years since, though, the play has been hailed as a classic of realism, and a 1902 Broadway production starring Minnie Maddern Fiske was a huge sensation.
Set in Norway, the play is about the daughter of an aristocratic general who has just returned from her honeymoon. Hedda is married to Jørgen Tesman, an aspiring academic, although it’s not clear at first if Hedda truly loves Jorgen or married him for other reasons. Their lives are thrown into disarray when Jorgen’s academic rival, Ejlert Lovberg, reenters their lives.
Zivot said as he took on the challenge of directing this classic piece, two things came to mind. One was the way Ibsen portrays this very strong woman, stuck in a culture where women are not encouraged to be either strong or independent.
Critics over the years have portrayed Hedda as everything from a heroine fighting an oppressed society, to a feminist icon, to a villain. But Zivot said those interpretations are too simplistic.
“Rather than thinking of this as an angry sort of feminist indictment, I think that’s too broad a brushstroke,” he said, adding that the situation confronting Hedda Gabler is far more complex than that.
“In one of the primes of her life, she is without a vocation, other than the societal mandate that she marry,” Zivot said. “That is not necessarily the right choice for people. If you force people to live lives they don’t want to, then don’t be surprised when things don’t turn out well.”
That’s what made Zivot think about his own mother and sister as he was directing this production.
“Twenty-five years ago I was struck by this story and thought, ‘Here is another capable woman,’ “ he said. “What I do see is a playwright commenting on a societal notion that powerful women are still disenfranchised. When you take away the opportunities of capable women, it shows the kind of trouble people get into when they are lost.”
And thinking again of his mother and sister, he added, “I imagined both of them in this world, and I don’t think this story would have turned out any differently for them.”
The other aspect of the play that Zivot hopes to fully capture is what he sees as the remarkable way that this very realistic story mirrors today’s popular reality television shows, where cameras follow people in their homes and record their most private moments.
“I keep coming back to the intimate nature of the story,” he said. “That’s what attracted me to it 25 years ago, and that’s what continues to attract me today.”
While directing it, he added, “I thought about the intimate stories that reality television purported to tell, about the opportunities, the desires, the plans to tell these really intimate stories. I was determined to create a production that serves those same ideals.”
The Mad Cow Theatre’s Stage Right Black Box is ideal for a story like this one, Zivot added.
“I immediately suggested this intimate space for the play,” he said. “It’s a very narrow playing space, but very long. That allows a disproportionate number of members of the audience to be in the scene with the actors. They will have a reality TV-type experience watching ‘Hedda Gabler.’ “
Zivot said he was also thrilled to be given the opportunity to continue working at Mad Cow, a theater that he says remains committed to bringing powerful, first rate productions of classic plays to its two stages.
“This is my second show this season, so I liked it well enough that last fall I was willing to take enough time off to get my sleep, then jump back into the fray again,” he said. “I like the work that Mad Cow does. I’ve been thrilled and delighted with the type of work I’ve been able to do here. I hope they continue to give me these types of opportunities.”
The production stars Melanie Whipple as Hedda Gabler, Sara Humbert as Berta, Emily Killian as Mrs. Elvsted, Mark Lainer as Judge Brack, Steven Lane as Eilert Lovborg, Robb Ross as George Tesman and Mikki Scanlon Kriekard playing Julia Tesman.
Tickets are $29 for adults and $27 for seniors and students with an ID. Shows begin at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. on Sundays.
Call the Mad Cow Theatre box office at 407-297-8788, Ext. 1 to reserve seats.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.