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Elizabeth Marvel, Jason Butler Harner and Mary Beth Peil in "Hedda Gabler," directed by Ivo van Hove, New York Theater Workshop. Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Getting a Hedda
By David Finkle

Hedda Gabler
By Henrik Ibsen
New York Theater Workshop
79 E. 4th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200


In Ivo van Hove's extremely--and surprisingly--well-received treatment of Hedda Gabler, when George Tesman says to his Aunt Julia, "Why don't we sit down on the sofa and have a little chat," she joins him on the 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. In Van Hove's, they're startling.

The Flemish director, whose fourth New York Theater Workshop production this is, normally avoids such literal actions. In the past, he has scorned any sheep-like following of conventional authors' explicit or implicit requirements. For instance, no one in his 1999 Streetcar Named Desire lighted a cigarette when the stage directions called for it. In his 1997 attack on Eugene O'Neill's More Stately Mansions, he decided that if characters behaved childishly, he'd show them splay-legged on the floor and braying like infants. (Although O'Neill wrote Stark Young that he'd finished More Stately Mansions, it was reported more than once elsewhere that he considered it unfinished. Van Hove finished it off, all right.)

So sitting through Van Hove's previous offerings, a patron may well have had the feeling that this director would rather hawk hot dogs at Yankee Stadium than pay strict attention to mundane details. Van Hove invariably has something hotly and doggedly iconoclastic in mind. He wants to shake up whatever is routine. Reviewing his Streetcar, in which Blanche's lounging around in a tub became a fixation, Jonathan Kalb wrote that the director "is the enemy of subtext." He meant, of course, that Van Hove has no fealty to the hidden aspect of what characters are thinking and feeling beneath the lines they're uttering. For Van Hove, the proper way to direct a play is to gut the text for the subtext, make the subtext into the text. If, while smoking a cigarette, one character is considering attacking another, Van Hove might say, "Forget about the damn ciggie-butt and stage the attack."

There's another way of looking at Van Hove's approach that suggests itself in the month Jacques Derrida dies. Although it has become a cliché--and frequently a misreading--to trace much of contemporary adventurous art to Derrida's notion of deconstruction, it makes sense to suggest that the crusading philosopher's belief in layers of meaning is echoed in Van Hove's exploration into the layers beneath a play's surface. Derrida wrote about breakdown of meaning, and Van Hove is dealing with breakdown of characters for whom existence is slowly drained of meaning. These may be decidedly Eurocentric preoccupations but they have clearly made it across the Atlantic for good.

For all these reasons, Van Hove's art has annoyed many stateside patrons while delighting others. I have to admit I've been with the former mob. I also have to report that the man's approach to Henrik Ibsen's revered study of a bored housewife white-knuckling her way into madness nevertheless works like a charm for me.

Yes, Van Hove still plays the unconventional card, and so does Jan Versweyveld, his regular scenic designer. In depicting the Tesman home, Versweyveld has turned the New York Theater Workshop stage and auditorium into an under-construction contemporary loft. Sheetrock adorned with rhythmic rows of white spackle serves as the walls. It glares at the audience from the moment the doors open. These unfinished walls, broken only by three metal doors and a pair of glass doors facing a walled terrace, imply from the outset Van Hove's point about subtext. He and Versweyveld are signaling that what's usually hidden will be exposed here.

(Incidentally, Versweyveld also seems to have another European mold-breaker in mind: Rem Koolhaas. The set for Hedda strongly echoes Koolhaas's design for Prada's flagship store in Manhattan's Soho. Perhaps what we have here is a Prada-influenced theater set as architectural installation. Fashionistas everywhere are claiming nowadays that other couturiers are cribbing from Miuccia Prada. We may soon have the same complaint picked up by theater cognoscenti.)

The breathtaking look of this Hedda Gabler, however, is only the beginning of why it redeems Van Hove's former transgressions for me. In writing his plays, Ibsen jolted the theater out of prevailing doldrums. To find a modern equivalent for that sort of cobweb-sweeping, a director has to uncover a viable correlative. By stripping away niceties, Van Hove does just that. Hedda Gabler is about repressed rage. So Van Hove, giving the play a modern setting, perceptively nods at current attitudes towards venting fury. Tempering rage is currently discouraged. And Van Hove won't let Ibsen's volatile figures do it. Throughout the production, Hedda (Elizabeth Marvel), boyish hubby George (Jason Butler Harner), former lover Eilert Lovborg (Glenn Fitzgerald), cocky Judge Brack (John Douglas Thompson), and pathetic Mrs. Elvsted (Ana Reeder) break into drywall-shaking outbursts. These unpredictable furies are like post-traumatic stress sufferers for whom anger management has failed. Their behavior as they speak Ibsen's famous lines makes complete sense in 2004.

(Once more incidentally, Van Hove uses Christopher Hampton's translation, first heard in 1972, when Hillard Elkins produced Hedda Gabler with A Doll's House for his then-wife Claire Bloom. Wearing period costumes, Bloom--who often looks as if she is banking sizable internal fires--was magnificently out of sorts. A few small changes have been made: the hat Aunt Julia wears, for instance, which Hedda cruelly criticizes during the early morning visit, is now a sweater. This is no doubt in recognition of the fact that a lady no longer needs to wear a hat.)

Van Hove's success with Hedda issues from an array of ingenious touches. Hedda's piano playing--which 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 for real. (John Cage fans may not think this is trying, because it's one of his works, but the intent is to register terminal boredom.) When she moves away from the instrument to sit on the floor and remains there for long minutes, 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 strews 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 juice, she is simultaneously docile and turned on. The sequence is both disgusting and riveting.

By the way, Hedda Gabler, as Ibsen wrote the overwrought woman, makes one of dramatic literature's most striking late entrances. No late entrance here, however, as she is introduced with that pre-show plunking. Ibsen means Hedda's influence on the temperament of the household to hover thickly in the hermetically sealed air, and Van Hove makes certain the point isn't missed by keeping the lady ever-present, immobile and gloomy (sometimes watching an upstage televison), even when Ibsen means for her to huff off.

As Hedda, Elizabeth Marvel lives up to her surname. She was a good sport as waterlogged Blanche five years ago, but here she shines. From slow boil to full flame, she's imperially commanding, conveying the full depth of Hedda's disdain for her ineffectual husband and for Mrs. Elvsted. With a whip-lash tongue and sidelong glances with the texture of icicles, she signals her longing for, and resentment of, Lovborg . The other players also keep up Van Hove's punishing pace. Jason Butler Harner as George Tesman and Glenn Fitzgerald as Eilert Lovborg go full steam with Van Hove's view of them as boy-men. They indulge in energetic horseplay, and Fitzgerald gives himself over to one of those throw-a-tantrum-on-the-floor routines Van Hove likes as illustrations of childish behavior. (Remember, one of Hedda's unspoken gripes is that she's saddled to an immature hubby.)

As Aunt Julia, Mary Beth Peil is chic and more openly drawn to George than the typical Aunt Julia is. There's a moment when she practically lies across him on that white sofa. As Judge Brack, John Douglas Thompson is also more demonstrative sexually than is customary, and this is the case with Ana Reeder as Mrs. Elvsted as well. Elzbieta Cryzewska as Berte the maid--who, like Hedda, practically never disappears from sight, spending her down-time dully in a side chair--is yet another barely contained personage.

There is one drawback to this Hedda Gabler. It's the problem that almost always arises when a director sets out to shake the cobwebs from a classic. Avidly eschewing the expected, he places the central focus on the process of reinvention. But when any production begins to be about theater procedure, it detracts full attention from what is happening to the characters--both in and between the lines. A text that means to have a visceral effect is transformed into something aimed at cerebral assessment, at admiration for something external to the script. One thinks less about what's happening than about how the director is allowing it to happen. Van Hove has indeed shamelessly called attention to himself with his Hedda Gabler, but he has nevertheless refreshed Ibsen so forcibly that attention must be paid.


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