Theater All About Hedda
posted by December 14 at 16:56 PMon
As has been discussed before, every time Washington Ensemble Theatre does anything, all of us—Brendan, Annie, and I, at least—fight about who gets to go see it/review it. But since Hedda Gabler only plays for one weekend, there’s not really much sense reviewing it in next week’s paper, so Kiley went to some rehearsals and wrote a big preview of it in the issue that’s out now.
Hedda Tesman, née Hedda Gabler, is a frustrated prize bride, recently wedded to—and, to her horror, pregnant by—a dorky academic named George. She used to be the belle of every ball but, she explains, “I had danced myself tired; my day was done.” She is a distillation of disgust—bored by her husband, revolted by his doting aunt, both repelled by and attracted to the randy neighbor, enthralled with her husband’s professional rival, and contemptuous of the rival’s sweet and innocent mistress. (Naturally, Hedda also despises the play’s only other character, a serving girl.) A mess of resentment, Hedda is a woman with brains and balls—her favorite pastime is shooting her pistols—trapped in a Victorian cage. She’s a victim and she’s in charge. She wants to be an artist, a writer, a creator. Instead she destroys.
So, how was it? I am probably not the person to ask because, embarrassingly, I haven’t seen the play before, whereas on the way out of the theater Kiley and Wagner were talking about what was cut and what wasn’t, about what these decisions said about director Jennifer Zeyl’s interpretation, about whether Hedda Gabler is a feminist work—and I was thinking about Radiohead and David Bowie and the Beatles. The show is saturated with music. Lots of Radiohead’s Amnesiac, some of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, a little of Bowie’s Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, all of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” all of Radiohead’s “Exit Music for a Film,” a certain song by the Beatles about happiness and warm guns…
The set Zeyl designed is a thing to behold—this is a lady who won a Stranger Genius Award for her set designs—consisting of a room with two chandeliers and slanted walls (so the characters can literally climb the walls) and abstract bric-a-brac (garish blue, frames on the walls without things in them, said chandeliers carved from wood with energy-saving corkscrew fluorescent bulbs). This is a brightly painted, chopped up, subtext-exploding re-imagining of a play in which what we know about plays is fed back into the work to create a kind of maniacally knowing, self-aware spectacle. This is psychology turned into furniture. The set is where Zeyl puts all of her ideas. She is a master at conveying what she means in visual terms.
Conveying what she means through actors, not so much.
Specifically, the relationships between the characters seem indistinct, which is a problem, because the play’s tension is built around what they think of each other. Mannerisms are specific to each character but in a lot of cases seem to come from nowhere. All of the actors (except one) have their moment, or lots of moments, that startle you into believing them, but the most successful moments in the show aren’t the fine, sharp psychological entanglements but the overstated gestures—the moment when Marya Sea Kaminski (as Hedda) tears all the fluffy white frills off her blouse, or when Colin Byrne (as Lovbourg) does aerial acrobatics on red tissu in the sequence where Hedda is imagining his death. But these are so constructed they’re essentially set pieces, these scenes.
In any case, using Radiohead throughout the show is brilliant, because Radiohead’s songs—the Amnesiac and In Rainbows ones, anyway—are melodies made of moans, feedback, bleeps, hissing, static, in other words, the sounds of the digital age, and are about what the digital age is doing to people. It is music that’s a critique of the digital age and yet, as the writer Mark Greif has pointed out, you need the tools of the digital age (the speakers in your iPod) to hear Radiohead’s music. And Hedda Gabler is built on such paradoxes of dependence.
That said, I have no idea what “Space Oddity” had to do with anything.