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Hedda Gabler

Kate Burton and Harris Yulin in Hedda Gabler
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
It is unlikely that Henrik Ibsen's first audiences, watching Hedda Gabler in 1890s Norway, were familiar with the phrase "control freak." But since Jon Robin Baitz goes so far as to include the slangy demurral "no problem" in his carefully modernized translation of the play, employed for the current Broadway production, it doesn't seem inappropriate to call the smoldering heroine a control freak. After all, she does end her life with an inherited pistol when she realizes that her determination "to have some power over someone's destiny"--as she and Baitz phrase it--is doomed to fail.

Destiny has little currency in contemporary vocabularies, but that's the way Hedda sees things. She dies of nothing but a rage to direct other people's lives--and in attempting to design their destinies, she ruins her own. Convinced that she's reached the end of her salad days, she has married the scholarly nerd George Tesman but continues to play power games with an old suitor, the conniving Judge Brack, all the while feeling throbs of passion for another spurned swain, the hot-headed but brilliant Eilert Lovborg.

Hedda's fast descent into oblivion takes place in less than 48 hours. She and Tesman have returned from a six-month honeymoon during which he researched Brabant craftwork in the Middle Ages--a big ho-hum for Hedda. On their return, Tesman learns that one of his two aunts is ill and the other has mortgaged her future so that her favorite nephew can raise children with his bride. Hedda learns from old school chum Thea Elvsted that Lovborg, whom she drove off by pulling a pistol on him, is back in town. In time, the Tesmans discover that the former reprobate Eilert has become so successful at writing smart books that he might be competition for the academic position George has been expecting. Hedda sees to it that the appointment can never take place, but she still must contend with a life full of small-town smugness. It's too much for her, and those pistols dear old dad left are conveniently at hand...

Nicholas Martin's production of the Ibsen warhorse has been touring long enough for word to get around that Kate Burton, as Hedda, has ascended into leading lady ranks. Before the encomia go to Burton's head or anyone else's, it ought to be said that she is indeed good without being incandescent. She and Martin have contrived a credible minx, always thinking how to position herself in the best light while entertaining dark thoughts. She's a woman who knows how to hide her machinations in a buoyant laugh, but who also allows herself a stellar, looks-could-kill gaze when she knows no one is watching.

Advance reports have had it that Burton's Hedda is the unprepossessing woman next door, a Hedda for our cut-down-to-size age. But this is hardly the case. In Burton's hands and voice, Hedda is a drama queen; dressed in Michael Krass's undulating gowns, she repeatedly runs madly across Alexander Dodge's high-ceilinged morning room to throw open the heavy draperies or pull them closed. When crossed in conversation, she is given to clarion outbursts. She positions herself on a divan while holding court and abruptly throws keys onto a table when she's impatient. When others are giving her ideas on what monkey wrench to throw into the works, she steps downstage and peers meaningfully into the middle distance.

So why the rep for underplaying? Maybe it's because Burton--who doesn't greatly resemble either her father, Richard Burton, or her mother, Sybil Burton Christopher--has a strong rectangular face and lithe figure, but is not, as many Heddas have been, ravishing. (Annette Bening played this translation in Los Angeles.) Perhaps Burton's frequent picking of lint off of men's coats has given rise to the notion that this is a meet-the-little-wife portrayal. Perhaps it's her vocal quality--occasionally, she sounds a bit nasal--that has made some observers think she's Mrs. Everywoman here. She isn't. In A Doll's House Nora slams the door; in this Hedda Gabler, the frustrated lady of the house doesn't slam anything overtly but makes it imperiously clear she is slamming entire facades in her conniving mind.

That must be how Burton and Martin want it. Martin, now the artistic director of Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, has done some of his best work on plays that feature larger-than-life women; to cite only two examples, he's led Mary Louise Wilson through Full Gallop and Debra Monk through The Time of the Cuckoo. With Hedda Gabler, he's making a bid to become the stage actress's George Cukor.

This approach has its rewards for audiences. One of the most theatrical moments currently to be experienced on a New York stage occurs when Hedda and Eilert are alone for the first time. The two exchange and hold a glance so steamy that frigid Norway is suddenly the tropics. But think about it: Why wouldn't a successful Hedda Gabler be heated? A lot of guff has been written about the character as a pre-feminist symbol, which perhaps she is. Certainly, Hedda is no shrinking violet, and her rampaging discontent is what compels attention. For reasons Ibsen never explains, possibly having to do with her dead father, she refuses to live the ordinary life to which she has condemned herself; few women who have guns as a hobby would be content to do so. Hedda may or may not be pregnant (the script fudges the issue) but, either way, she doesn't want children.

Kate Burton and David Lansbury in Hedda Gabler
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
These issues are as cogent today as they were a hundred years ago--but, first and foremost, Hedda is a stage creation, presiding over a plush melodrama. If she were any less, and if that were the point Burton and Martin aimed to make, they wouldn't have Hedda striking such a lovely pose when she offs herself and falls across the piano for the final tableau. (One last word about this Hedda's flamboyance: Burton plays the first act, during which guests come and go, in a pink peignoir trimmed with lace. It's unlikely that a woman as concerned as she is about avoiding scandal would entertain visitors in such a provocative get-up unless she had an uncommon turn-of-the-century taste for theatrics.)

Martin gets aesthetically pleasing performances from all his principals. The big-chested David Lansbury as the volatile Eilert Lovborg steals every scene he rushes into, all pistons pumping. Progressing from gentleman author to suicidal loser, he makes Eilert electrifying. Michael Emerson is believable as the obtuse George Tesman, a fellow who never picks up his Aunt's unsubtle hints about impregnating his wife. Harris Yulin, who gives the appearance of big if not always solid character whether in period or contemporary clothes, has the right sly urbanity for Brack. And Jennifer Van Dyck, as North European-looking as her surname implies, is a pretty, vulnerable Thea Elvsted.

"Hedda, you really are something," the besotted George exclaims, as if he were Horace Vandergelder telling Dolly Gallagher Levi that she is a damned exasperating woman. And he's right. The Nicholas Martin-Kate Burton Hedda Gabler really is something, even if it isn't everything.

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