Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Austin D. Oie .
There is always something to be said for a theatre company trying something new or making an effort to freshen an older play with some unique concept. Sometimes the result is something sparkling and truly original. Broadway’s recent spate of revivals that re-imagine shows like Oklahoma, Once On This Island, West Side Story, etc. comes to mind. There are times, though, that the idea that seemed brilliant when it was conceived just doesn’t pan out as well as its creators had hoped. That, unfortunately, is the case with TUTA’s new version of Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabler, now referred to as Hedda Gabler: A Play With Live Music.
The idea was certainly interesting: a new adaptation of the play featuring a three-piece band and songs expressing Hedda’s thoughts and emotions. The notion of combining a classic text with modern music struck me, when I first heard it, as very promising, something that could potentially add new layers to the play. And those musicians, as well as the actors, give this concept their hearts and souls (especially Lauren Demerath, who leaves everything on the stage as Hedda). But there is not enough variety in the songs by Wain Parham (who also plays keyboard), except when they suddenly and inexplicably veer from ballad to punk rock, and adapter/director Jacqueline Stone, TUTA’s Artistic Director, adds a series of decisions, including odd blocking, that are questionable, unrealistic, and unnecessary.
Let’s start with the microphone. Demerath sings into a large vintage microphone on a stand, though she doesn’t need it: the space is small at Strawdog Theatre and she has a strong voice. Yes, she’d need to be amplified for the one rock number, but for all the rest? Her natural voice would have been much better than the somewhat tinny mic sound. So why then the mic? The only answer I can come up with is a desire on Stone’s part to remove any semblance of verisimilitude in her mashup concept in which, as the press release notes, “the past and present collide.” However, when a set features see-through white curtains instead of walls and is dressed with an odd combination of furnishings that include chairs that can pass as period but also random items like a large footlocker, a sawhorse, a modern stool, and a metal storage cube…the realism ship sailed long before opening night.
(And I haven’t even mentioned the creepily white-masked band members, the random double bass that Hedda finds lying on the floor of her sitting room at the start of Act Two, the fact that one character plays an entire scene in his underwear, the many stacks of books piling up all over a house that is strangely devoid of bookcases, or the confetti explosion near the play’s conclusion.)
As for blocking: people are constantly sitting anywhere other than the (few) chairs onstage. They sit on a chest, on the floor, or on any of the various items mentioned above. They climb up and stand on them as well, though nothing really motivates such unusual movement except the desire to create interesting and eclectic stage pictures. These patterns (and I feel justified in calling them that because the movements all repeat several times) don’t feel natural; they feel forced. And they constantly take us out of the play.
This is especially frustrating because, as I have mentioned, the cast is doing an excellent job of working within Stone’s framework and trying to make her clever concept work. Demerath sings from the depths of her soul when she is called to do so, and her Hedda is a wonderful combination of childlike glee, depression, deception, flirtation, and desperation as she attempts to make something of what she now feels to be a mistake: marrying her new husband, George Tesman (Huy Nguyen), a dull author who lacks any sort of imagination or sense of romance whatsoever and is mostly wrapped up in his research. The man who actually has the capacity to make Hedda feel any kind of passion is her once-lover (and Tesman’s academic rival) Eilert Lovborg (Kevin V. Smith), who is trying to revive a career shattered by alcoholism by writing an exciting new book about the future with the enthusiastic help of one of Hedda’s old school friends, Thea Elvsted (Aziza Macklin). Thea, in turn, has just walked out of her own bad marriage, Nora Helmer style, which (as Ibsen points out in A Doll’s House) is just not done at this place and time. To this mix, Tom Dacey Carr adds an element of menace and intrigue as Judge Brack, another would-be lover who openly expresses the desire to form a “triangle” with Tesman and Hedda, who at this point is just hoping that someone in her life will have the courage to perform one perfect act and prove to her that her romanticized notion of chivalry still exists in the world.
Despite their efforts, however, they can’t overcome the problems that Stone’s ambitious and admittedly inventive reconceptualization of the play creates. I cannot recommend this Hedda Gabler, which gets so lost in its own conceit that Judge Brack’s famous final line, “People don’t do such things,” gets swallowed by another rush of loud rock music (as well as the fact that he is facing upstage). When key conversations need to be shouted in an effort to be heard over the music, maybe that’s a clue that the music is too loud for the moment. Unfortunately, Stone seems to have been too enamored with her own creativity to notice.
Hedda Gabler is a TUTA production now playing at Strawdog Theatre, 1603 W. Berenice, Chicago, IL, until Mar 29. The show runs approximately 2:20; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.