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Theater Review: Cate Blanchett Is Hedda Gabler

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What Ibsen may have done for womankind has been much debated, but for women in the theatre his gifts do keep on giving. As victimized and oppressed as Hedda Gabler and Nora Helman may be in their fictional worlds, stage divas have dominated the stage in their names ever since Ibsen’s ink dried. The dynamism of these plays’ protagonists is their blessing and their curse. The roles can attract star power, bringing talent, but potentially eclipsing and unbalancing the rest of each play’s crucial ensemble. On the other hand, if the actress brings none of the requisite presence and depth to bear, everyone’s in for a cold Norwegian night, staring at an empty fireplace.

On the New York stage, stars don’t get much bigger than Cate Blanchett, and I will start by attesting to the Oscar-winner’s natural charisma and stage chops. This is a good start in such a massive and omnipresent role as Hedda. In Robyn Nevin’s production for the visiting Sydney Theatre Company, Ms. Gabler-Tesman, as she might wish to be called today, lurks more than ever, drifting through Fiona Crombie’s surprisingly (for this play) airy mansion of a set. Incessantly restless and fidgety, moving furniture pieces and disrupting flower arrangements, this Hedda would pull focus even were she not a glamour-cover movie star.

At first one might be aghast at Blanchett’s disregard of her fellow actors, until you realize the choice here is to make Hedda just that…well, bitchy. It’s good for a few laughs up front – aided by the snappy dialogue of Andrew Upton’s “adaptation” which barely refrains from outright anachronism. Blanchett’s orneriness ends up working against the play, however, because it’s just too winning, oddly enough – at least for the hipsters in the BAM audience perhaps new to the play.

About halfway through I had to remind myself that there actually was some depth to this play, and that Hedda wasn’t just a time-traveler from Sex and the City forced into a corset to endure the Ibsenite expostulating of some 19th-century stuffshirts. (Appropriately, Kristian Fredrikson’s costumes inch it all up to about 1910, it seems. And not too badly.)

Hedda has real emotional problems of her own. While Carrie Bradshaw might have her run away with her old flame, Ibsen makes her plan his death. What does that tell you?

So the result is actually a pretty entertaining Hedda, and that’s not a phrase you hear too often. But, of course, by the time you get to that gunshot at the end (which seems more random and hackneyed than ever here) you can see the problem. Hedda’s not a play about just a bored woman but a mountainous passion kept at bay by bourgeois propriety and small-mindedness. It’s also about some other people, too.

Anthony Weigh turns in a milquetoast, but not unlikeable George (here Jorgen), whose presence shows the protagonist’s problems are not necessarily all about a bad marriage. Hugo Weaving turns in a more whiskered version of his Matrix bad guy as Judge Brack, which wouldn’t be too far off the mark if he didn’t practically twirl that mustache so brazenly. The dead weight in the group, unfortunately, is the Lovborg of Aden Young, who generates no onstage chemistry with Blanchett (can you believe it?), thus providing no engine for the play’s tragedy. If your Hedda looks like she can eat your Lovborg alive at any moment, it’s time to recast.

It was hard not to think back to another Hedda just over a year ago at (yes) New York Theatre Workshop – Elizabeth Marvel’s rendition in Ivo Van Hove’s trippy modernization. The two productions were from entirely different schools, so comparison is not really fair, and Van Hove is playing his own private game. But Marvel managed to show us in that extreme whacked-out performance the core of Hedda’s diseased soul, an unforgettable portrait of neurotic, totally irrational depression. There will never be another Hedda like hers, nor should there be. But it serves as a necessary reminder that Hedda is more than a girl with “attitude.”

For tickets and schedule for this production go to bam.org.

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