“I’m burning your baby!”
Watching Moya O’Connell’s Hedda Gabler cackle with glee as she incinerates the alcoholic academic Lovborg’s manuscript in her fireplace, I had a brief flashback to Billie Joe Armstrong lighting a drum kit on fire at the end of a Green Day concert.
Here is Hedda as a self-consciously rebellious rock star unleashing some creative destruction at the end of a set. In O’Connell’s performance at the Shaw Festival, she also flirts with and fights off gentlemen groupies, fires guns at friends for kicks, and trashes her new home like it’s a hotel room. Burn, baby, burn! If you’ve been suckered by the advice put forth in self-help books like Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 play is a persuasive (and pre-emptive) rebuttal to such retrograde arguments.
The headstrong Hedda weds the kind, solvent but mildly ridiculous academic Tesman because, in her words, “It was time to leave the dance floor.” But – spoiler alert – it doesn’t end happily ever after.
In director Martha Henry’s production, Hedda Gabler is most of all – especially after a slightly stuffy first half – a good deal of fun. Perhaps it is aiming for more than that, but Ibsen’s late-career classic functions quite well in this case as a kind of 19th-century prime-time soap full of entertaining half-humans.
In addition to the vampiric, but not entirely unappealing Hedda, there’s her slimy suitor Judge Brack (Jim Mezon), a lecherous high-powered figure who blackmails wives into bed; her ex-lover Lovborg (Gray Powell), a reformed alcoholic who spectacularly deforms; and her rival, Thea (Claire Jullien), a goody two-shoes who’s not so good that she hasn’t run off from her husband after Lovborg.
Unexpected pregnancies, meddling aunts, yanked hair and a couple of guns sitting in a downstage drawer waiting to be fired – what more did Desperate Housewives have to offer?
O’Connell was Maggie in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last season at Shaw, and there seems to be a smidge of Southern belle left on her Hedda: a slight twang in her delivery; the expressed love of her daddy, the late General Gabler, whose portrait hangs at the centre of William Schmuck’s set and whose pistols help facilitate the play’s famous denouement.
O’Connell is making a specialty of playing beautiful women married to men who can’t or won’t satisfy her sexually. Her locks pulled back tight into braids – the time period’s equivalent of Botox – her Hedda has returned from a long honeymoon with Tesman (an aw-shucksing Patrick McManus, all obliviousness) bored out of her mind. As she tells Judge Brack, who is trying to arrange what he, euphemistically and with geometric inaccuracy, calls a “triangle” with her and Tesman, “I was born bored.”
With her pregnancy giving her nothing but morning sickness and rest-of-the-day disgust, her only response at first is to throw every cushion she can lay her hands on and insult her Aunt-in-law Juliana’s hat. Once she’s done with the furniture, she starts attacking all the men and women who wander through her salon.
On the postage-stamp-size stage of Shaw’s Court House Theatre, Henry’s production is occasionally pitched slightly too large for the space – the subtlety of Powell’s Lovberg lives in a different play from the high spirits of Mary Haney’s Auntie.
Henry’s staging (and the script version by Richard Eyre) signals all the subtext, and well in advance, like a student driver changing lanes. Indeed, there are a couple of moments where the staging gets ahead of the dialogue, leading to revelations that hit the audience first, then the characters a few lines later.
But this production is all about Hedda – and O’Connell’s a fine, fiery one.