“All you need to make a movie,” Godard once pronounced, “Is a girl and a gun.”
In the loaded high drama of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, staged by Actors Ensemble at Live Oak Theater, the heroine, caught in a web of her own and others’ pretensions, isn’t just a girl—and the guns are a matched set of dueling pistols, which belonged to her late father, the general.
The guns have become her playthings, and, as Chekhov said, “If you see a gun on the wall when the curtain goes up, you should expect it to be discharged by the end of the play.”
Moving with a scathing yet tragic economy, Ibsen renders the scene: a bored young gentlewoman, with beauty and high spirits, just married to an academic completely preoccupied with his research; redoing the old villa they’ve moved into, but bridling at any suggestion of starting a family. Her ambition has been to inspire a man to greatness, and she learns that her original subject, her husband’s old academic rival, has returned, redeemed by the attentions of one of her old classmates who married an older businessman. Meanwhile, an old family friend looks on, using his influence to make arrangements for everyone, as well as himself.
It’s the tale of three interpenetrating triangles, digging into the soil of the playwright’s native Scandinavia, and the European middle class in general, disclosing with irony the claustrophobic resentment and hypocrisy that made up the daily bread of society, which gathered up every romantic gesture of those wishing an escape, smothering it in sordid banality.
The plot seems to turn on each phrase, each impulse carefully stifled or redirected: explosive—or implosive; spring-loaded, or boomeranging.
Hedda Gabler, both the character and the play, were Ibsen’s answer to his fellow Scandinavian Strindberg’s aggressive charges that he coddled the overweening ambitions of his bluestocking heroines. Ibsen paid back in kind, appropriating something of the Swede’s dramatic manner, but in an objective mode, where the characters’ excesses are clearly shown in the context of a repressive situation. They seem to share something of that paradoxical fear of, yet impersonal hope for the future that marks Chekhov’s characters a generation later. There’s none of Strindberg’s “proto-Expressionism,” though there is a harsh poetry of the clear light of day shining on absurd, willful actions, dreamt up in some dark night of the soul.
Wendy Welch’s Hedda is young, high-strung and florid; after the brittle exposition of the first act, the play gets going (literally with a bang) at the start of the second, when she “playfully” blasts away at unctious Judge Brack (Louis Schilling) as if an intruder in her garden. Their conversation is like the dialogue of two ham actors, each overly aware of their own comportment—and the other’s.
The tense situation is volitilized by the return of wayward scholar Eilert Lovborg (Eric Carlson) with his new manuscript, who says he’s come just to ask how Hedda Gabler could’ve married Jurgen Tesman (Aaron Murphy), so much a straightman as to be a buffoon. Thea Elvsted (Thais Harris), unhappily married but serene in her role as Eilert’s muse, appears and reappears, confiding in her old schoolmate who used to twist her hair ... the clock is wound and will strike ...
Stanley Spenger, who founded Subterranean Shakespeare and is now president of Actors Ensemble’s board (a good augury for their 50th season), has adapted the text well (Michael Meyer’s script for BBC and John Osbourne’s remarkable version are well worth reading) and, as director, gotten the most out of his actors (Marian Simpson plays maid and family retainer Berta and Maureen Coyne is Tesman’s self-sacrificing Aunt Juliana).
The show moves swiftly, missing none of the complications or ironic exchanges, and will grow stronger in delivery and dynamics as it runs. Rose Anne Raphael’s fine set and Helen Slomowitz’s costume design do everything to place the action, abetted by Christine Dickson’s lighting.
It’s a tough play in every sense, but this production has the right attitude, reflected in the director’s notes, which contemplate doing a masterpiece for its intrinsic value as well as for the sake of a spectator who, “like all of us at one time,” hasn’t seen the play--one that seems predicated on Judge Brack’s words at the end, though they seem to bookend the action: “People don’t do such things, even if they say them!”
Actors Ensemble of Berkeley
Through Nov. 18
Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.
Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave.