The plot points and themes in Hedda Gabler are as juicy as anything you may remember from TV’s long-running Desperate Housewives, to borrow a comparison used by Miami Theater Center in promoting its new production of the Henrik Ibsen classic.
Manipulation, newlywed boredom, sexual shenanigans, deceit, blackmail and suicide are only some of the elements Ibsen mixed into his 1890 drama, a play that offers a leading role as alluring to great actresses as Hamlet is to fine actors. Hedda Gabler has been, and can be, enthralling.
After its first foray into classic theater with Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters in late 2012, Miami Theater Center is again delving into a great work with Stephanie Ansin and Fernando Calzadilla’s adaptation of Hedda Gabler. The production, with a set, costumes and lighting by Calzadilla, taps into Miami Modern style and is visually quite striking. But enthralling? Not so much.
Director Ansin has cast her production well, giving New World School of the Arts grad Jessica Farr the chance to shine as a youngish Hedda, choosing Carbonell Award-winning actors Gregg Weiner and Paul Tei to play, respectively, Hedda’s husband and former lover, and giving John Dennison the plum role of the slyly lusty Judge Brack.
Yet though Ansin and Calzadilla have trimmed the play’s running time, updated its language and, through design, placed it somewhere in an undefined time, this Hedda Gabler unfolds at a languid pace with contained energy and a muted passion that may serve Ibsen but doesn’t fire up this reinvestigation of the play.
Played out on a skeletal set evoking the fish tank that was its inspiration, with the audience sitting onstage just feet from the action, Hedda Gabler focuses on a restless, aristocratic woman sliding toward disaster after just six months of marriage. Hedda (Farr, sporting sleek dark hair and a succession of outfits that suggest money and fashion flair) is already bored to tears by her ill-considered union with George Tesman (Weiner), an academic who spent much of their six-month honeymoon researching his upcoming book on domestic industries of the Netherlands in the middle ages. Way to kick off a marriage, George.
From the get-go, it’s clear Hedda isn’t happy with her new life. She’s formal and subtly rude to George’s elderly aunt Juliana (Kate Young), demanding and particular with her lone servant Berta (Kitt Marsh), not at all pleased that George is a man of meager means.
She’ll engage in flirting with the oily judge (when she isn’t trying to shoot him) and with Eilert Lövborg (Tei), George’s academic rival and a man who still inspires passion in her. When Thea Elvsted (Diana Garle), a married former classmate of Hedda’s who has just left her much-older husband for Lövborg, shows up as the men are having drinks before a guys-only dinner party, Hedda symbolically plants herself between her ex and his current squeeze on the chic white sofa.
In this Hedda Gabler, empathy for the title character is elusive. Moving glamorously around her fish bowl, Farr is forced to freeze in the spotlight now and then, widening her deep brown eyes as composer Luciano Stazzone’s original music swells, silently communicating her innermost despair. It’s a version of a device Ansin used in Three Sisters, but it doesn’t add softness or complexity to a character who comes off as spoiled, bitchy and more than a little crazy.
Weiner, a fine actor who can play volcanic with the best of them, is true to the constraints of George’s milquetoast character, amiably bland. Garle, lovely and lost as Thea, plays a different kind of desperate housewife who clings a little too readily to George in times of crisis. Dennison has much more to work with as the creepy Brack (he lacks only a mustache to twirl), and whenever Tei appears, he energizes the entire production in a way that will make you wish Lövborg had a lot more stage time than he does.
That the artists at Miami Theater Center are devoting their creativity and energies to making the classics come alive for new generations is an admirable and important part of the company’s mission. If only Hedda Gabler were a bit more heady.
If you go
What: ‘Hedda Gabler’ by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Stephanie Ansin and Fernando Calzadilla.
Where: Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 16.
Information: www.mtcmiami.org or 305-751-9550.
Panel: Free panel discussion on the play at 4 p.m. Nov. 2 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408.