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Mark Brey as Hedda Gabler in Speed-Hedda
(Photo: Rob Nava)
A gender-bending adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler may sound like a dubious theatrical enterprise, but the L.A.-based Fabulous Monsters Performance Group pulls it off in grand fashion. Speed-Hedda is surprisingly faithful to the original text. Sure, the action has been transported to an American suburban town in the 1960s, Hedda is constantly "speeding" on drugs, and the all-male cast members play both male and female characters. But the basic plot and many of Ibsen's lines remain intact.

At roughly an hour and fifteen minutes, the production lives up to its name as a fast-paced adaptation of the 19th-century classic. Hedda Tesman (Mark Brey) returns from a honeymoon in Europe with husband George (Jay Smith). They're greeted by George's doting Aunt Juju (Tim Dunaway), they discover that the disgraced scholar Eliot Lovborg (Smith, again) has returned to town, and they meet up with Hedda's former schoolmate and Lovborg's current collaborator, Thea (Dunaway, again). Also on hand is Dr. Brock (Chris Wells), a manipulative fellow who is scheming to gain absolute control over Hedda.

Brock's role is perhaps the most altered in this adaptation. Not only is he friend and confidant to the Tesmans, he is also presented as Hedda's drug dealer, keeping her supplied with a steady supply of controlled substances in order to help her cope with her mind-numbing life. The production also emphasizes or adds a few queer references to the play. For example, much is made of the fact that Dr. Brock often enters through the back door. And we are told that, during Lovborg's night of drunken debauchery, he ends up at Madame Danny's, a club staffed by female impersonators. (In Ibsen's original text, he visits Mademoiselle Diana's, a house of ill repute).

Director/adapter/set & costume designer Robert Prior has reconceived the play in an innovative, cinematic fashion. This involves much more than just the on-stage screen showing pre-recorded sequences that parallel or complement the live action: Prior also creates "jump cuts" through quick pacing and seamless set transitions. Two actors dressed in black maneuver various pieces of furniture on wheels while also playing incidental characters such as waiters, taxi drivers, and skycaps. John Zalewski's ingenious sound design adds to the overall effect, driving the pace forward with appropriately bizarre sound effects and mambo-flavored music.

Brey makes a marvelous Hedda. His tall, angular frame gives the character a regal bearing that emphasizes her haughtiness. Brey's bitchy line delivery seems completely appropriate, and the actor is equally good at turning some of the more melodramatic sections of the script into campy but emotionally resonant moments. One example is the infamous scene in which Hedda burns the only copy of Lovborg's latest manuscript. This sequence one of the most serious missteps of the recent Broadway production: The otherwise marvelous Kate Burton was unintentionally humorous as she melodramatically exclaimed, "I'm burning your child, Thea. I'm burning your child!" Admittedly, even the most talented actress might have trouble delivering this line seriously. Brey doesn't even try; he goes straight for the jugular and, in so doing, achieves something wonderful.

Jay Smith is hilarious as George, Hedda's dull, bookish husband. His befuddled mannerisms and wide-eyed expressiveness are pitch-perfect. Unfortunately, the actor is less adept as Lovborg, the brilliant but self-destructive scholar and former love interest of Hedda. Dressed in a black leather jacket and beret and speaking in a gravelly, low-pitched voice, it's obvious that Smith is trying to make the character as distinct as possible from George. However, his portrayal lacks focus (this may also be the result of poor directorial choices). It's unclear why Lovborg is so surly to Thea from the start; if that's his attitude, it makes no sense for him to be so devastated by the loss of the manuscript that he and Thea created together. Dunaway is more successful in his two roles, and is especially delightful as Thea. With a blonde bouffant wig and pouty expression, this Thea is a dazed, slightly incoherent creation that serves as the perfect foil to Brey's Hedda.

Speed-Hedda is a laudable experiment by a talented theater company. Those familiar with Ibsen's play will be probably be intrigued by the way in which the Fabulous Monsters have altered it; however, enjoyment of the production doesn't require any prior knowledge of Ibsen at all.

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