Miami Theater Center's Hedda Gabler opens in a way no other versions of Henrik Ibsen's 19th-century classic ever have. In a wordless prologue, with semitranslucent curtains shrouding the audience's view, the title character (Jessica Farr) slinks down the elegant staircase of her new home, a strikingly modern, antiseptically white villa that looks both alien and Design District-chic. Bored -- because Hedda Gabler is nothing if not bored -- she briefly rests her head on an electric keyboard (standing in for the piano in Ibsen's 1890 rendering).
Next, she wheels around the room on a Lucite chair, her arms and head flung backward in a gesture of undomesticated restlessness that the play's male landowners would see as an affront to decorum. Then, with a visitor about to enter the room, Hedda's respite is over; she spirits herself upstairs, and Ibsen's words begin.
Already, adapters Stephanie Ansin and Fernando Calzadilla have made a bold choice -- revealing some of Hedda's psychology before the story begins rather than leaving her presence a gossip-fueled mystery for the first 15 minutes of the play -- and it's one of many. This challenging, atmospheric, and sexually provocative production, whose promotional materials tease Hedda as "the original Desperate Housewife," is a postmodern attempt to understand Hedda's dichotomy as both a heartless sociopath and a kept woman rebelling against a patriarchal system.
The daughter of a wealthy general, Hedda lives in her manse with her husband-in-name-only, the fusty academic George Tesman (Gregg Weiner). They've just returned from a six-month research sabbatical/honeymoon, and George is now ready to write a tedious new tome about "the domestic industries of the Netherlands during the Middle Ages," a proposal that drew a number of laughs opening night but which probably didn't sound so ponderous when Ibsen conceived it.
It's a loveless marriage by all accounts. This pairing has no chemistry, other than the malevolent concoctions soon to explode in the beakers of Hedda's warped mind. Drawn into the marriage under the increasingly false pretenses that her husband would soon join the aristocracy, Hedda has embraced boredom and self-pity as her vocations.
But when a procession of visitors drifts into the Tesman residence -- among them Thea Elvsted (Diana Garle) and Eilert Lovborg (Paul Tei), old flames of George and Hedda, respectively, who are now scandalously in love with each other -- Hedda discovers her passion in orchestrating their destruction, which plays out over roughly 24 traumatic hours.
The play's advertising describes a "world-famous drama about a reluctant housewife rebelling against the prison of stability," and to that end, scenic designer Calzadilla has created a boxy set that converts the vast main stage into an intimate black box with limited seating. Balusters on the second floor resemble prison bars, and floor-to-ceiling curtains suggest isolation from the outside world.
But what's really remarkable about this place is that it can stand in for everywhere and nowhere, a metaphysical oasis surrounded by existential blackness. Outside the space, characters appear and disappear like ghosts, and the eerie hum of Luciano Stazzone's original ambient music furthers this sense of otherworldliness, occasionally intruding on the dialogue to hypnotic effect.
The play's tone thus becomes perched between the avant-garde and the soap-operatic -- delirious melodrama cozying up to self-conscious aestheticism. Whether it fully works is in the eye of the beholder, but it's a uniquely ravishing combination, even with a cast that sometimes seems to be performing in different productions.
Weiner impressively resists making his George a manipulable cuckold. He acts with a seeming awareness of his wife's absence of affection, and he handles the play's dark climax with a palpable sense of relief rather than sorrow. It's great to see Tei back on a South Florida stage for the first time in years, in a fine supporting role; his Lovborg is a figure transported from another time, a renegade bohemian with black-painted fingernails, his patchwork clothes an art project in progress. The most naturalistic acting comes from Garle, whose Thea may ultimately be this Hedda Gabler's most tragic victim.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, and topping this cast in delicious theatricality, is John Dennison as Judge Brack, a character who, in other productions, serves largely as a provider of exposition. Here, through Ansin and Calzadilla's adaptation, he's reborn as a scene-stealing lecher, lasciviously eyeing the play's women and forever calculating his next sexual advance. The adapters have provided him with dialogue that is far more suggestive than anything Ibsen wrote. Innuendo-laced lines such as "I don't have any objections to back doors; they can be very stimulating" teeter hilariously, precariously toward camp. But more important, they establish a predatory male danger in Hedda's life -- albeit one in which Hedda flirtatiously courts -- which creates at least some justification for her crazed actions.
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As for the title character herself, Farr doesn't quite rise to the challenge of bringing depth and roundness to Hedda's monotonous ennui. Her bloodless Hedda so lacks in affect that her character's magnetic pull, which is central to the story's machinations, barely registers. She doesn't come off as the atom around which all particles spin, but rather another particle herself -- a member of the ensemble as opposed to the lead.
Because she feels nothing, neither do we when it matters most, when the bullets fly. But does it really matter that we feel everything the characters do? This version's uncompromising style and intellectual bravery go a long way to compensate for its curious lack of emotional connection. Like its lead actor, this production is frigidly cool to the point of detachment, but it's dazzling to experience.