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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Hedda Gabler: An Ibsen Revival
by Henrik Ibsen
New Adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz
The Ambassador Theater
219 West 49th Street, New York City
(212) 239-6200
Opened October 5, 2001
Discussed by Margaret Croyden December 1, 2001

Hedda, like women of her class in the nineteenth century, had very little to do in life. With no career, no chance of being equal to men, she finds, much to her dismay, that she is pregnant, a condition she patently abhors. In the course of the play, she does some nasty things out of rage and envy (it would be unfair to give the details away), and emerges, in some eyes, as a destructive villain. For a leading character to be seen unsumpathethically is a hardship for any actress to play; one wonders what Henrik Ibsen was thinking.

But hold on, she is not the usual villain, but a woman trapped by unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, a woman who seeks self-expression, and who wishes to be counted for something more than a wife and mother. Unfortunately she has not got the strength to overcome the obstacles in her life that women of her generation faced. And that perhaps is her tragedy.

Kate Burton in the role of Hedda Gabler has become a star. For a long time, the daughter of Richard, she has played many roles, but not one as demanding as Heddas. Nor has she been acclaimed for any other play as much as she has for this one, despite some dissenting opinions. Ms. Burton must deliver the entire play and she works hard, maybe too hard. She does capture the stage, however, almost all the time. She has sufficient theatricality to draw our attention, sufficient beauty to be admired, and in strange way, manages to intrigue the audience. It is difficult to watch anyone else on stage but her.

Still, in an attempt to modernize Hedda, she and the director have chosen some irritating affectations. Burton's speech for example: her voice, the intonation and delivery are very much 21st century, and her manner is too flippant and casual--cool as it were. Burton's vulgar horse-like laugh used very often that elicits amusement form the audience is wrong for Hedda, a class conscious aristocrat. Hedda is not a comic character, nor is the play lightweight, but delivering one liners for laughs (is this done for modernity?) is not appropriate, nor appealing. A poor choice is Burton attitude when she first enters; she plays the opening lines like a sly bitch that tips the character in the wrong direction. Later, when she realizes she is trapped, and has no way out of her dilemma, Burton is, in fact, moving. Her softness and vulnerability in the end, should be there somewhere in the beginning.

Nevertheless, Kate Burton does bring Hedda to life; she is a compelling actress and has a certain magnetism on stage. And that in itself is stimulating in this season of dreary performances.

Unfortunately her colleagues are all miscast. Hedda's husband (Michael Emerson) is played like a nerd; he is not a silly nincompoop. The character is naive, self involved, but not a complete dunce. It is too bad that Mr. Emerson, actually a fine actor, interpreted the role that way. Judge Brack (Harris Ulin) is too passive; he lacks energy and the necessary sensuality to be a villain, while Hedda's lover (David Lansbury) is over wrought and hysterical.

Credit must be given to the director, Nicholas Martin who, despite the obvious flaws, keeps the narrative moving. But actually the star here is really Ibsen. Despite the numerous productions of "Hedda Gabler," the play still has a magnetic force, and one feels mesmerized watching Hedda even though we know how it all will end.[Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's book "Conversations with Peter Brook" will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the Fall.

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