Hedda Gabler

Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Michael Menendian

At the Raven Theater in Chicago
Produced by Raven Theatre Company

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on May 16, 2009

This review contains spoilers.

It would be easy to summarize in one sentence my response to Raven Theatre's production of Hedda Gabler. But doing so might discourage my gentle reader from learning about its brighter moments. In the tightest sense, saying there were "a few" good moments is the same as saying there were "few" good moments. I have to confess that the latter, because of its less diplomatic tenor, conveys more accurately my reaction to this worse-than-mediocre production by a theatre company whose reputation for professionalism has been well-deserved.

There were forgotten lines and dialogue collisions. Delivery was perfunctory and timing awkward. And the ending, which was rushed and sloppy, was the final indignity both to Ibsen and to the audience, leaving me with the impression that I'd just watched a group of amateurs indulge their delusions -- with a big budget for sets and costumes.

Hedda Gabler, whose married name is "Tesman", chafes at the passive, bourgeois conventionality that her professor husband represents. Trapped in a cycle of promise and frustration, this forceful, gun-shooting, horseback-riding woman longs for independence, for freedom from Victorian oppression, for inspiration from energetic people who don't fear uncertainty. Feeling suffocated by society, she lives vicariously by manipulating those around her. Nevertheless, her motives are puzzling because her actions, at least on the surface, are neither consistent nor desultory. She's more disdainful than sociopathic, although, calling to mind Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead, she has a Randian admiration for her husband's academic rival, Ejlert LÝvborg. Gabler's behavior doesn't make sense in the context either of rationality or of madness -- or even of amorality. Her values may exemplify what Ibsen thought to be those that we fail to recognize in ourselves, or perhaps those that we refuse to explain, or that we can't explain, to other people.

In the title role, Mackenzie Kyle did give us the irregularities in Gabler's words and actions. And sometimes she engaged me with sharp timing, smooth nuances, and glimmering color. But usually her irregularities failed even in the capacity of irregularities that shouldn't make sense. Her Gabler wasn't unified, whether as a sane woman, an insane woman, or just a woman with interesting inconsistencies. Kyle's characterization was confused and a bit chaotic, missing many opportunities to carve out a personality worthy of this enigmatic persona, even without ever having to elucidate her motives.

A contemptuous sneer was the only strength in Jon Steinhagen's portrayal of the sinister Judge Brack. Beyond that, he delivered a lifeless recitation of his lines in a voice that was barely audible. Because of Steinhagen's insipid acting, Kyle couldn't capitalize on the comparatively sophisticated relationship between Gabler and the judge, a rapport that should have enabled her to frame her ambitions around what she was doing, or was going to do, as the provocateur in this story. If Kyle indeed had a solid notion of Gabler's psychology, Steinhagen's vapid performance robbed it of the fertile soil it needed for development.

Ian Paul Cluster, as Ejlert LÝvborg, was appropriately anxious. But he tried too hard to act. Rather than just letting his LÝvborg be a recovering alcoholic, allowing the audience to interpret his signals, he exaggerated the signals, forced our interpretation, and eroded the genuineness.

The other performances were bland and amateurish. However, Ian Novak, who played Gabler's husband, George, did render a convincing passivity and naivete, creating an effective contrast for the woman trying to live "heroically" under the explicit and implicit pressure to conform to rigid social expectations.

The players handled the ending of this play so badly that it was difficult to think of the company as professional. The performance had been unsatisfying enough, but to throw away the final few seconds as they did calls into question Raven's seriousness of purpose.

Gabler is a rich piece, prescient both of 20th-century life and of its threats to human individuality. At the heart of the play, at least in my opinion, is the importance of freedom to the essential self. However, so bungled was Raven's production of this otherwise extraordinary work that its meaningfulness just disappeared behind the embarrassingly slipshod acting. Raven is a much better theatre company than this, and I trust their next production will restore my faith in their skill, insight, and creativity.