Glenn Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Marvelin Hedda Gabler(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Glenn Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Marvel
in Hedda Gabler
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In Ivo van Hove's treatment of Hedda Gabler, when George Tesman says to his Aunt Juliana, "Why don't we sit down on the sofa and have a little chat?", she responds by joining him on a white sofa. When Hedda talks about her father's pistols and goes to retrieve one, she plucks an actual pistol from a glass case on an upstage wall. In most productions, these would be unremarkable occurrences, but they're startling in van Hove's.

The Flemish director, whose fourth New York Theatre Workshop production this is, normally avoids such literal touches. In the past, van Hove has typically scorned the sheep-like following of authors' orders. For instance, no one in his 1999 production of A Streetcar Named Desire lit a cigarette when the stage directions called for it. While sitting through van Hove's previous offerings -- that's to say, enduring them -- patrons may even have gotten the feeling that if the director were required to pay strict attention to such details, he'd rather give up the theater and hawk hot dogs at Yankee stadium.

When van Hove works, he has something hotly iconoclastic in mind; he wants to shake up whatever is routine. Reviewing his Streetcar, wherein Blanche's lounging around in a bathtub became a fixation, one critic wrote that this director "is the enemy of subtext." For van Hove, the proper way to direct a play is to make the subtext into the text. If, while smoking a cigarette, a character is considering attacking another character, van Hove he might forget about the cigarette and stage the attack. The results have annoyed many theatergoers while delighting others. I'm usually with the former crowd, but I have to report that the fellow's approach to Henrik Ibsen's classic study of a bored housewife white-knuckling her way into madness works like a charm for me.

Van Hove still plays the unconventional card here. So does Jan Versweyveld, his regular scenic designer and, it certainly appears, his alter ego. In depicting the Tesman home, Versweyveld has turned the New York Theatre Workshop stage and auditorium into a contemporary loft under construction. Unadorned sheetrock covers the walls, glaring at the audience from the moment the doors open. The walls, broken only by three metal and glass doors leading to a walled terrace, imply from the outset van Hove's feelings about subtext: What's usually hidden will be exposed here.

In writing his plays, Ibsen jolted the theater out of its prevailing doldrums. To find a modern equivalent for that sort of cobweb-sweeping, a director has to uncover a viable correlative -- and, by stripping away niceties, van Hove does so. Furthermore, Hedda Gabler is about repressed rage. In giving the play a modern setting, van Hove perceptively nods at current attitudes towards venting fury. Tempering one's rage is often discouraged nowadays; so throughout the production, Hedda (Elizabeth Marvel), her boyish hubby George (Jason Butler Harner), her former lover Eilert Lovborg (Glenn Fitzgerald), the cocky Judge Brack (John Douglas Thompson), and the pathetic Mrs. Elvsted (Ana Reeder) break into sheetrock-shaking outbursts. Anger management has failed for these people; their behavior as they speak Ibsen's famous lines makes complete 2004 sense. (Incidentally, van Hove uses Christopher Hampton's translation of the play, first heard in 1972 when Hillard Elkins produced Hedda Gabler and A Doll House for his then-wife, Claire Bloom.)

The fact that Ibsen's work coincides neatly with van Hove's directing technique is manifest throughout the play's two acts in an array of ingenious touches. Hedda's piano playing -- something she does to kill time, right up to the moment before she kills herself -- becomes an emblem of tedium. The miserable newlywed is picking out a dreary melody before the action begins in earnest; when she moves away from the instrument to sit on the floor, the melody continues. (The sound design is also Versweyveld's.) Because Hedda refers to flowers, van Hove distributes bouquets of them in metal containers. When Hedda is upset, she throws the blooms around and even staples a half dozen to the walls. When Judge Brack assaults Hedda with, of all things, a can of V-8, she is simultaneously docile and turned on. The sequence is both disgusting and riveting.

As Hedda, Elizabeth Marvel lives up to her surname. She was a good sport as a waterlogged Blanche five years ago, but here she shines. From slow boil to full flame, she's imperially commanding, and she conveys the depth of Hedda's disdain for her ineffectual husband and for Mrs. Elvsted. With a whip-lash tongue and icy, sidelong glances, she signals her longing and resentment for Lovborg. The other players -- Ana Reeder, especially -- also keep van Hove's punishing pace. They deliver a Hedda Gabler the likes of which you've never seen before.