Theatre

Double Hedda

Nina Shen Rastogi

In New York, Henrik Ibsen's centennial is celebrated with a knockout showdown: It's Cate Blanchett vs. the robots, for the soul of Hedda Gabler.

"Ibsen was an important writer because he liberated women from years of doing chores. This made many people unhappy, because who was going to do the chores now? What's funny is that people keep doing his plays even though now women are free." -- Nugget, Heddatron

The housewife -- desperate, Stepford, triple-X or otherwise -- is a key figure in today's culture wars. She is the locus for a hundred different anxieties about life in the twenty-first century, from changing gender roles to the shaky status of the nuclear family to the eternal friction between social conventions and individual subjectivities. Since Lisa Belkin of The New York Times Magazine raised eyebrows and red flags with her story on successful women who "opt out" of the professional world in favor of Gymboree sessions and time with the Barefoot Contessa, it seems that every week sees the publication of yet another article breathlessly analyzing the condition of the modern housewife. (See "The Opt Out Revolution" 26 October 2003) In "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf urged us to kill the angel in the house, but nearly 80 years later it seems the post-Third Wave woman is just as likely to don those dusty wings as storm the boardroom -- even though housewife still whispers housebound to some of us.

Nineteenth century Norway isn't new millennium New York, but it isn't difficult to see Hedda Gabbler, the titular heroine of Henrik Ibsen's 1890 masterpiece, stomping her way through a Westchester split-level. The play that takes her name is one of literature's most indelible portraits of the frustrations of married suburban life, and one that has managed to retain its currency even though the world in which it is so deeply ingrained -- a world of gas lamps, carriages, corsets, and governesses -- remains distant to us at best.

Hedda Gabler is a beautiful, charismatic, and, depending on who you ask, either monstrously uncharitable or deeply unhappy woman stifled in her marriage to Jorgen Tesman, a small-minded academic whose chief recommendation seems to be that he's very good at "putting other people's papers into order." Unable (or unwilling) to make choices that would grant her the kind of fulfillment she desires, Hedda chafes against her restricted life by manipulating those around her, eventually leading to the destruction of her carefully composed social environment and the deaths of both her former lover, the brilliant libertine Ejlert Lovborg, and herself. Like Hamlet, Hedda Gabler is a star on the verge of collapse: grand and unstable, she destroys everything in the wake of her celestial fallout.

In the past few months, New York has celebrated the centennial of Ibsen's death with two very different productions of this seminal play, and I do mean very different. One is a thoroughbred prestige piece, staged at one of New York's major cultural institutions and starring a bona fide Serious Celebrity Actor. The other is a willfully odd, prankish adaptation performed by a hot downtown troupe and starring a sexually deviant August Strindberg, a guy dressed as a monkey, and a handful of talking robots. Who live in the jungle and kidnap people.

The Sydney Theater Company's production of Hedda Gabler, which originated in Australia in 2004 and is currently playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, offers a handsome production of Ibsen's text (updated and modernized by playwright Andrew Upton) firmly planted in the conventions of realism; namely, pictorial verisimilitude and performances grounded in coherent psychologies, all of which plays out in a tightly-bound fictional world to which the audience is granted private, omnipotent access.

But this production hasn't become BAM's bestselling show in over 10 years because NYC audiences have suddenly developed an insatiable taste for fourth walls and working fireplaces, or even for Henrik Ibsen and his sexy little muttonchops. No, the big draw here is the very, very famous woman playing Hedda: the luminous Cate Blanchett, queen of Lothlorien herself and recent Oscar winner for her performance as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator (another woman, you will no doubt note, who seemed blazingly modern before her time).

It's a brilliant double play, one that satiates a secretly star-hungry highbrow audience while promising them serious, hearty fare to chew on at the same time; kind of like giving you permission to read Us Weekly for the articles. Blanchett, too, seems an unassailable choice; she's one of the few Hollywood actresses with the right mix of intelligence, strength, glamour, and stature to take on this grand dame role of Western theater. Julia Roberts will probably generate far more publicity when she appears on Broadway in the revival of Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, but you can't exactly see her playing Mother Courage anytime soon.

So it's a bit odd, and maybe disappointing, that Blanchett's performance didn't strike a nerve with critics like it should have. Her Hedda was all over the map; Ben Brantley, writing in the New York Times, noted, "Blanchett is giving roughly a dozen of the liveliest performances to be seen this year, all at the same time." In the New York Post, Frank Scheck called the performance "mannered", and described Blanchett "hyperactively flittering about the stage and making manic gestures." (In my notebook, I had apparently scribbled, "DRAG QUEEN?!") Blanchett's performance is so large and unwieldy it overpowers the rest of the cast; her wattage is so bright it almost threatens to blind the audience. I got the feeling that greatness had been swapped out for celebrity; a condition, of course, that seems sadly endemic today.

In Variety, David Rooney criticized Blanchett for not making Hedda vulnerable in any way. And it's true: every one of her line readings was suffused with such obvious disdain for the other characters that the driving engine of the play -- the insinuating power Hedda exerts over those in her orbit -- sputters and dies, leaving the overall production curiously inert. But if Blanchett's performance was closed, guarded, and impenetrable, in another way -- as a sort of actorly psychic defense mechanism -- it exposed a different kind of vulnerability. Hedda Gabler is often referred to as "the female Hamlet", and like Shakespeare's great tragic hero, Hedda Gabler has become the role to play if a woman wants to establish herself as a formidable actress. This, of course, implies a lot of baggage; you can see why Blanchett might have wanted to hide herself away within the vast spaces of a grand, hollow performance.

There's also the creeping sense that Hedda is not only too big for the little world she lives in, but also for the very play that has called her into being. Like Whitman, Hedda is large; she contains multitudes. Her motives are notoriously hard to pin down, which furthers the comparison to Hamlet. Laurence Olivier's too-neat explanation of Hamlet as "the tragedy of a man who can't make up his mind" is just about as satisfactory as the conventional wisdom that Hedda Gabler is a woman who, faced with the boredom of a bourgeois life, shoots herself in the head.

Hedda Gabler, on the other hand, is the epitome of the well-made play. It's neatly divided into five acts, with a highly structured dramatic arc that hews closely to the classical unities of time and space (the entire play takes place over the course of a single day, in the space of a single room). As I watched Blanchett ricochet around Fiona Crombie's vast, architectural set like a very haughty pinball, I realized that, while Hamlet might be able to bound himself in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space, Hedda Gabler needs a lot more room to move.


Carolyn Baeumler as Jane in Heddatron
Photo: Jean Marcus / Les Freres Corbusier

Hedda gets much more space to play in Liz Meriwether's Heddatron, the latest offering from the downtown troupe Les Freres Corbusier (many of whom, I should note, are friends of mine from college), which was directed by Alex Timbers in February at the HERE Arts Center in Soho. Over the past few years, Les Freres has developed a reputation for smart-alecky takes on nerd-friendly topics: they've done an extravaganza on New York city planner Robert Moses (last year's Boozy); a rock musical about Warren G. Harding (2003's President Harding is a Rock Star); and, most notoriously and litigiously, a children's Christmas pageant about Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (2004's Obie-winning A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant). Watching a Les Freres show is sort of like watching a group of very, very smart prep school sophomores performing their end-of-semester history class skit: despite the fact that they're gleefully yelling fuck you, look at me!, the company still manages to charm audiences with the obvious, infectious sense of pleasure they take in their own manic shenanigans.

The central housewife in Heddatron is decidedly less glamorous than Blanchett, stalking around her mansion in high-necked silk gowns. Jane (Carolyn Baeumler) is listless, pregnant, and spends a lot of time polishing her gun and making to-do lists ("Buy chicken…Google France…Read My Heart is a Lonely Hunter"). She too has a sad sack husband, but unlike Ibsen's Hedda, who seems to suffer from a Kristeva-inspired fear of breeding, Jane also has a daughter; a spunky 10-year-old named Nugget (Spenser Leigh). Heddatron is framed by a presentation Nugget is giving to her sixth-grade English class, entitled "Hedda Gabler, colon, Well Made Play, question mark." As Nugget narrates her hilariously deadpan summation of theater history -- "Most people don't know about theater history because it is not as interesting as regular history. There aren't any wars. Theater history is made up of people trying to make theater in different ways than the other ways of making theater." -- we watch, upstage center, a battle of wills being waged between a fussy, neurotic Henrik Ibsen, his sneering, dismissive wife Susannah, and Ibsen's great literary rival, the aforementioned horny Strindberg. At the same time, we watch a family drama grow increasingly frantic as Jane's husband, Rick, and his loutish brother, Cubby, join forces with a pimply amateur filmmaker to track down the missing Jane.

These disparate storylines twine around the real heart of Heddatron: the story of Jane's mysterious disappearance. Suffering, it seems, from an ennui that springs from having to have babies and live in Ypsilanti, Jane begins to read Ibsen's play when a copy falls from her living room ceiling. Hedda Gabler soon starts to work its way into Jane's consciousness. At one point, when Rick (Gibson Frazier) and Nugget are trying to film her for a home movie, Jane grabs the camera and points it out at the backyard; as a looming image of black branches fills the stage, Jane murmurs in a soft voiceover, "I want to go somewhere with vines hanging down. I want to get leaves in my hair." It's a crucial inversion from Ibsen's play, where Hedda hungrily imagines her old lover, Ejlert Lovborg, as a triumphant figure "with vine leaves in his hair", Jane wants the laurels for herself.

But the promise of subtle, insightful Ibsen revisions is not why, weeks before Heddatron opened, Collision Detection blog was already declaring it "the best play in the history of the universe." ("Hedda Gable! Acted by Robots" 2 February 2006) About halfway through this 90-minute one act, two visitors arrive in Jane's living room. They are Hans and Billy, and they are robots. Not actors in robot costumes, mind you, but real, live robots. "Turn around, Jane," they intone. "I am an enormously large robot and I am also a large poet," says Hans. "Turn around Jane. Bump, bump, what's that? That's my robot heart beating itself to death inside my rock hard torso-tron. Turn around, Jane. Turn around and look, look at all of this stuff piling up around you. My penal shaft is enormous. It is also metal. This is the moment, this is exactly the moment." It may read goofy on the page, but after 45 minutes of happy stage cacophony, the slow, mechanical bleeps are eerily moving, and the robots' flat, awkward come-ons have some of the strange and dreamy power of Radiohead's "Fitter, Happier".

Hans and Billy spirit Jane away to the forests of Ecuador, where they force her to perform in their all-robot revue of Hedda Gabler. There, amid the vine leaves, Jane experiences a brief, rapturous moment of… something. The precise connection between Jane and the robots or, for that matter, Jane and Heddam is tenuous and doesn't bear too much scrutiny. Perhaps the robots are drawn to Jane because they are each, the living woman and the automatons, caught up in their own experience of singularity: "the moment," an engineer explains in the play, "when robots will break out of the network of communications and achieve self-awareness."

Watching Heddatron isn't unlike the experience of reading Hedda Gabler for the first time: one gets flashes of insight, makes momentary synaptic connections. None of the play's tantalizing ideas are ever fleshed out into anything resembling a thesis, and not all the connections are explored logically (is a woman in 2006 really like a toaster?) A side story involving Ibsen's "kitchen slut", Else (Julie Lake) -- who recounts a horrifically, comically, over-the-top tale of rape at one point, and at another brightly asks her master if he wants to "put it inside" her -- is so disturbing and jarring that I kept wondering when the narrative would resolve or explain itself. It doesn't, and in the end, Heddatron leaves us with a lot more questions than answers. But then, maybe we should be celebrating that. In response to Hedda Gabler's ineffable, sprawling mysteries, Les Freres offered us something just as messy and fascinating, with some robot sweeteners to make it go down easy. Or, in the final words of Nugget's school report:

"Maybe the day you saw it was just a bad day. Maybe you're a stupid person. I don't know why Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler. But maybe that's the point. Hedda doesn't want to be understood; she doesn't want us to say, "Oh, that play was so well-made." It's like it got out of control. It's like Ibsen just let it break itself. Why did he build something just so it could destroy itself from the inside? (a slight pause) If you're a robot and you figure out you're a robot, are you still a robot? Who do you become? (a slight pause) I don't know. Also I brought blow-pops."

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