ORLANDO – It says quite a bit about how remarkably effective the Mad Cow Theatre’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” is that one of the most powerful, even devastating, moments comes from a soft whisper.
You may literally feel a chill run through you during that quiet moment, as Mad Cow’s very cozy Stage Right theater captures the full intimacy — and intensity – of those eerily whispered words. For those few seconds, it’s as if you’re staring into the smiling, cheerful face of pure evil – and it looks so real, so believable, because it could be the kindly person living next door who is saying them.
In adopting the Norwegian playwright’s tragic drama about the headstrong woman and the two days that follow her return home from her honeymoon, Mad Cow gives the audience a small set: two golden-laced chairs, a night table, a desk and chair, and two parlor sofas. One of the key set pieces, as it turns out, is a wood stove, which has a vivid and memorable role to play in another one of “Hedda Gabler’s” most intense scenes – and, once again, it’s a near silent moment.
In an interview with Freeline Media just before the play opened, the director, Eric Zivot, said he hoped to use that small stage – with the audience literally inches from the performers – to replicate the raw intensity of today’s reality TV shows, where cameras follow people in their homes and capture the emotions laid bare by the people who agree to be filmed. With Ibsen’s carefully crafted and smart dialogue, “Hedda Gabler “ is, in this critic’s view, vastly superior to whatever passes for conversation in most reality shows.
But at the same time, Zivot does accomplish his main goal, in that “Hedda Gabler” is often most emotionally effective at moments of pure silence or near-silence, when a single act by Hedda as she stands before that wood stove — or that chilling whisper later in the play — are more shocking to watch than anything your average reality TV performer can come up with.
It doesn’t seem like “Hedda” will be moving in this direction – at first. The play opens with Juliana Tesman, the elderly aunt of Hedda’s new husband, George Tesman, coming to visit their new home on the day the newlyweds return from their honeymoon. Juliana chats briefly with George’s headstrong and opinionated housekeeper, Berta (played in a wonderfully grumpy and comedic fashion by Sara Humbert), and then with George, who comes off at first as the kind of happy-go-lucky, isn’t life great guy who blindly fails to notice all the chaos happening around him. In fact, George’s opening conversation with his aunt is polite, cordial, and warm – save for the moment when Juliana confesses that she’s dipped into her savings to help George financially until he secures a university professorship that he’s been counting on getting as a way to support himself and his new wife. George is angry at first that his aunt would risk the money she relies on, but she assures him that she’ll make due, and she’s only doing it because the family loves him so deeply. George calms down, and quietly thanks his aunt for her continued support.
The entire tone, pace and mood of the play shifts dramatically when Hedda enters the room. Brilliantly performed by Melanie Whipple, Hedda is headstrong, opinionated, impatient with others, and not shy about being openly dismissive of them. If George is the classic nice guy who is courteous and polite to everyone, Hedda is a marked contrast. She barely disguises the contempt she has for others, often displaying it through a biting and sarcastic phrase. Speaking to others in a forceful tone, Hedda makes it clear that if she considers you to be less intelligent than she is, she doesn’t have time of day for you.
But as strong as Hedda initially seems to be, her life begins to spiral out of control when the local judge, Brack, arrives at their home to give George the bad news: his professorship isn’t a lock, because another academic, Eilert Lovborg, is also competing for the position. The fact that Hedda has a history with Eilert only complicates the matter even more.
One of the reasons this play works so beautifully is because of the dualing performances by Whipple and Robb Ross as George. Initially, you’d be tempted to dislike Hedda as she subtly insults just about everyone, seems to hold herself high above the others, and comes across as arrogant and pompous. But at the same time, you might also be tempted to dislike George, who comes across as a fairly dopey wimp who is clueless about just how much mischief Hedda is getting them into as she invites Lovborg back into their lives.
But as the play goes on, I found myself liking both characters more and more. Hedda does come across as being rude at first, but you begin to appreciate the fact that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and takes charge of her life. Regardless of the decisions she makes, Hedda is so fiercely determined that you begin to root for her.
George, likewise, starts to come across as the kind of wide-eyed everyman that any of us would like to be, always assuming that he can turn things to his advantage, always eager to throw himself into the next project. He seems less clueless than grateful for what life has given him – a solid academic career, a loving family, a beautiful new wife. He’s the eternal sunny optimist who contrasts so sharply with Hedda, who is cynical and angry at life, and resentful of the position she’s in — even though she now has a beautiful new home and devoted husband.
What Hedda doesn’t have, of course, is her freedom. As a woman in 1890s Norway, Hedda’s options are limited – and marriage is the one path that society expects her to take. She admits to being bored and unfulfilled by the role as wife. And yet, as she discovers through her dealings with both Lovborg and Judge Brack, there are far worse fates to be had for women in this society.
There’s a very brief, and highly effective, scene in the first act, that happens off stage, when we hear a gunshot. It turns out that Hedda has been playing a trick on the judge, firing a shot in the air with her pistol, startling him without actually doing anything to injure him. It’s a scene that will haunt your memory as the second act begins its devastating slide into tragedy; and Zivot was right, the tightly enclosed nature of Mad Cow’s Stage Right is perfect for this haunting domestic drama.
“Hedda Gabler” plays now through March 25 at the Mad Cow Theatre at 105 S. Magnolia Ave. in downtown Orlando. To learn more, call 407-297-8788 or log on to www.madcowtheatre.com.
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