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In Uncategorized on February 6, 2009 at 12:54 am

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THE GREAT ALLA NAZIMOVA, AS HEDDA GABLER (1907)

AND HOW FAR WE’VE FALLEN:

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MARY LOUISE PARKER AS “HEIDI” GABLER (2009)

(Photo by Sarah Krulwich)

Chekhov once famously exhorted his actors to perform his work as if it were comedy – something the recent revivals of THE SEA GULL and THE CHERRY ORCHARD – take to somewhat extreme results, which only end up being woefully unfunny (and unmoving). I don’t know what Ibsen had to say to his performers, but there is little doubt that the Roundabout’s current production of his searingly tragic HEDDA GABLER is a downright laugh riot, if unintentionally so. 

The chief perpetrator is Mary Louise Parker who, although her Hedda is entirely misconceived as a girlish little brat, is at least more watchable than she usually is. In PROOF, ANGELS IN AMERICA and so much else, she seemed to be aping an observation Pauline Kael once made about Sandy Dennis making an acting style out of a post-nasal drip. From her affectedly adenoidal line delivery to the wide-eyed waif-ishness, stabbingly forthright gesticulation and over-calculated timing, Parker was one busy bundle of mannerisms. Here, she is no less mannered, but absolutely riveting. That she is also giving one helluva bad performance only rather adds to the perverse enjoyment afforded.

Elegantly sporting Ann Roth’s magnificently statuesque gowns (the only sign of real artistry in this production), she carries on like a spoiled birthday girl at Chuck E Cheese suffering a simultaneous sugar attack and desperate need to be put down, nap-wise. It must be said that Christopher Shinn’s smart-ass, anachronistically modern adaptation of Ibsen’s text contributes to the generally infantile atmosphere, yet another example of a great playwright’s work being given a presumptuous and unnecessary makeover by a lesser, contemporary one. I, for, one am heartily sick of these directors and adaptors who condescendingly make all this noise about shaking the dust off the classics and replace it with jarring anachronisms and a battery of other inappropriate, self-indulgent “modern” effects.  Here, Shinn not only cuts out Hedda’s desire for her Lovborg to come back triumphantly to her wreathed in vine leaves but changes the devastating final line, “But people don’t do such things!” to the pallid “Who would do such a thing?” The New York Times’ Ben Brantley expressed total bewilderment that Director Ian Rickson could have directed such a bad revival of HEDDA when he recently did such a good one of  THE SEA GULL There’s really no mystery and Brantley was only half right – they both frankly stank.

 “Excellent!” Parker cries sarcastically, sounding like Keanu Reeves or Mike Meyers, when yet another one of Hedda’s maleficent machinations gets befouled. As the curtain rises, our first view of her is prone, with her derriere gratuitously exposed, as if to noxiously prove right off that this “ain’t your grandma’s HEDDA!”  Later she changes dresses onstage, revealing a trendy, black half-cup brassiere, which surely would have startled any maid in 1890, the year the play takes lace. And her reaction to the devastating news that her would-be lover, the dissolute, doomed poet Ejlert Lovborg has shot himself – not nobly in the head, but vulgarly in the groin – elicits a voluminous, frustrated hiss that had people rolling in the aisles.  

Parker’s co-actors only add to the hapless hilarity.  Peter Stormare effortfully tries and risibly fails to be sepulchrally menacing as Judge Brack, who lusts after unhappy Hedda and will do anything to have her in his thrall. Paul Sparks, looking and acting like an Abercrombie & Finch model as Lovborg makes the perfect SoCal Valley Boy counterpart to this nutty Goth girl who’s really more of a  “Heidi Gabler,”  although the way he pronounces her surname – “Gobbler” – might have you thinking he’s referring to some Norwegian Thanksgiving dinner.  He’s wholly unbelievable as any kind of thwarted genius artist, although you certainly can see him going on a whorehouse bender. Ana Reeder also comes dangerously close to eliciting guffaws as a particularly bovine, cluelessly immature Thea Elvsted, unimaginable as any kind of a romantic rival to even this diminished Hedda. Michael Cerveris manages to emerge with some dignity intact as Hedda’s husband, Jorgen, the most thankless unloved spouse role ever conceived, but brings little detailed interest or redeeming humor to a dull part. Lois Markle is a maid  – sporting a ridiculously huge ethnic headdress and what I surmise is her idea of a Norwegian accent –  right out of some hoary vaudeville routine.

As the play neared its climax, the audience could have been watching an episode of MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, so primed were they to guffaw at that crazy lady on the stage and her wacky antics. Any hard-won empathy one might have felt toward a titular character, stifled by gender and place in society, was simply nonexistent. Hedda, who must be both compellingly charismatic and cruel, is a notoriously difficult role to play, one which somehow completely escaped the actress born to do it – Bette Davis.  Ingrid Bergman was conventionally cold and dull in the role, Glenda Jackson snorted like Ferdinand the Bull on a single, monotonous note of anger when she acted it, Fiona Shaw crazily munched every bit of available onstage bric-a-brac, Kate Burton played it as if she were the maid. A super-elegant Cate Blanchett made a boldly effective attempt at it, filled with black humor, at BAM in 2006, which was nearly undone by the wrackingly obvious direction of Robyn Nevins, replete with those thunderous music effects underlining the end of each act which have become the tiredest modern theatrical cliche of them all.   

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CATE BLANCHETT AS HEDDA (2006) Photo by Steven Siewert 

The best Hedda I’ve ever seen happened in 1954, and you can see it for yourself if you go to The Paley Center (The Museum of  Television & Radio) and request the videotape. Tallulah Bankhead was 52 when she did it for a TV broadcast of the U.S. Steel Hour, but proved that age is wholly irrelevant as she invested it with all the magnetic glamour, laser wit and terrifying malevolence Ibsen surely must have intended.  Hedda Gabler is, like MEDEA, or Blanche DuBois (or HAMLET for men), a role which no amount of theatrical training and personal desire can prepare one for. In short, Bankhead was a truly extraordinary woman, playing  just that:  the perfect, rarest  marriage of personality and part.

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TALLULAH BANKHEAD, THE BEST HEDDA I EVER SAW

(Portrait by Augustus John, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.)

OTHER HEDDAS

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MAGGIE SMITH (1970)

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DIANA RIGG (1981)

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FIONA SHAW, 1993

 

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JANET SUZMAN (WITH JOHN  SHRAPNEL 1977)

 

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EVA LE GALLIENNE (PLAYED IT ON BROADWAY IN 1948)

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INGRID BERGMAN, 1963

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GLENDA JACKSON (1970)

 

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ELIZABETH MARVEL (2004)

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KATINA PAXINOU (PLAYED IT ON BROADWAY IN 1942)

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ASTA NIELSEN, 1925

 

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MRS. PATRICK CAMPBELL (1907)

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PEGGY ASHCROFT, WHO GAVE A MEMORABLY SAVAGE PORTRAYAL IN 1954

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CLAIRE BLOOM PLAYED IT ON BROADWAY IN 1972

 

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JILL BENNETT PLAYED HEDDA IN 1972, FROM AN ADAPTATION BY HER THEN HUSBAND, JOHN OSBORNE

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ISABELLE HUPPERT, 2005

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DELPHINE SEYRIG, 1967

 

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IRENE WORTH, 1970

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NANCE O’NEILL, 1917

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ITALIA ALMIRANTE-MANZINI, 1919

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  1. You couldn’t be more accurate about Parker’s “Gabler” — almost risible. I saw Fiona Shaw and loved it, but in my 40 years as a theatre goer I would have to say the best I have seen was Kate Burton, closely followed by the underrated and brilliant Alexandra Gilbreath at the donmar back in 96. Ibsen’s Hedda is a tall 30 year old, but from Nazimova to Bankhead to Burton she has rarely been played by an actress meeting that description; today 30 seems too young for this complicated character.

  2. I have to say that having seen Fiona Shaw’s Hedda — which was at least better than her Richard II –I agree with you about her; I also saw Alexandra Gilbreath, an underrated actress in 1996 and she was quite good. However, you will think me insane when I tell you that the poorly reviewed 1994 New York production starring film/tv actress Kelly McGillis was, in my humble opinion, if not inspiring then at least surprisingly competent. One wonders what her co-star, Laura Linney, who played Thea, might have done with the role. It seems that so often — Gilbreath was a notable exception — the actresses who play Hedda, like most actors who play Hamlet, are simply too old. I am told the Chicago production with Martha Plimptpn was superb and I wish I had seen that; also the one with Tallulah you speak of; from Regina Giddens to Hedda may sound like a leap but both women are primarily angry and frustrated, so I imagine Bankhead would have been very good indeed.

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