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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Theater Review: Hedda Gabler
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2009-05-13

This article shared 4042 times since Wed May 13, 2009
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Playwright: adapted by Jon Robin Baitz from the play by Henrik Ibsen. At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark. Phone: 773-338-2177; $25. Runs through: June 27.

Wives fleeing loveless marriages. Brides suffering post-honeymoon regrets. Brilliant careers destroyed by alcohol and vice. High-ranking public servants using their power to seduce young matrons rendered tractable by neglectful husbands. Envious society belles orchestrating the ruin of their luckier peers. Henrik Ibsen's play, premiering in 1890, was so staggeringly modern that over a century later, audiences still shrink from its enlightened insights, preferring to coo over the Victorian decor or discourse on the countless smugly insular scholarly analyses inflicted upon this classroom classic—anything to avoid confronting the story for the shocker that the author intended it to be.

Adapter Jon Robin Baitz evades much of the academic impedimentia by first taking Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey's literal translation from the Norwegian, then streamlining the language into modern English vernacular. But the final step toward liberation of Ibsen's text is Raven Theatre director Michael Menendian's transposing of its period to circa 1935—a milieu at once familiar from countless movies, while still distant enough to isolate the characters within their own universe.

This chronological shift not only frees the actors from the necessity of exaggerating their subtext in order to convey social status or conventions immediately clear to Ibsen's audiences, but facilitates our suspension of disbelief with an ease permitting the dramatic tone to move gradually from domestic comedy to noiresque thriller with a fluidity that forestalls disruptions of sophomoric hindsight. No distracting "why doesn't she just...?" queries interrupt our savoring the irony of mousy Thea's humble self-esteem empowering her to an independence that the spoiled and beautiful Hedda dares not pursue. Nor must we justify our enjoyment of witnessing a pistol-packing femme fatale being her own bad self.

Menendian has assembled a cast ready to immerse themselves in their archetypes: Mackenzie Kyle tempers Hedda's sullenly hostile egotism with a sympathetic vulnerability, especially in her scenes with Jon Steinhagen, who adds another weaselish villain to his resumé, playing the lecherous Judge Brack. Ian Novak and Symphony Sanders make the most of their one-dimensional roles as the boyish George Tesman and the nurturing Thea Elvsted, but Ian Paul Custer still needs to reconcile the contradictions motivating the macho-posturing, but secretly guilt-ridden, Eilert Lovborg. And look for Andrei Onegin's ingenious steamer-trunk scenic design to attract attention at awards time.


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