by Chris Davis
"I want your love and I want your revenge. You and me could write a bad romance."— Lady Gaga
"Really to sin you have to be serious about it."— Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt
Director Bo List's production of Hedda Gabler, on the NEXT stage at Theatre Memphis, is a tasty take on Ibsen's classic snooze of a play.
Well, the play's not a snooze, but it can be. You know, not much story but lots of deeply felt feelings in the parlor and such. The setup: Hedda Gabler, the headstrong daughter of a military man, has married second-rate academic Jorgen Tesman. Now the lackluster honeymoon's over and she's probably preggers. She's also bored to death with the ordinary life and barely tolerant of her dull husband. But Hedda's attitude brightens when she hears that Eilert Lovborg, an old flame with a bad reputation, is back in town, and riding high on the success of his recently published book. Let the deadly head games begin.
Theatre Memphis's Hedda boasts a fine ensemble of unfussy actors who keep the action galloping ahead as recklessly as the title character on one of General Gabler's prized horses. Justin Asher, Meghan Lisi, Bill Andrews, Aliza Moran, and John Maness, are all precision instruments who cut to the desperate heart of their respective characters.
Momentum is the key to this production. Even the pauses between scenes are filled with Hedda— the irresistible force of nature— dressing and undressing in a spotlight; ripping herself out of and plowing impatiently into layer after layer of cumbersome fabric.
Hedda has been described as "the Female" Hamlet," They're both great roles, obviously, but beyond that I've never understood the comparison. She's really more of an Iago, isn't she? Intrigue without accountability, right? And having so little control over her own circumstances she burns to shape another person's destiny
Lisi's Hedda didn't just remind me of Iago, it reminded me specifically of Bob Hoskins' Iago, laughing at his accusers because he's the only guy in the room who gets the sick joke.
Ibsen named his play Hedda Gabler instead of Hedda Tesman to emphasize that his heroine was more her father's daughter than her husband's wife. Lisi is an appropriately commanding presence; always in charge, even when she's entirely out of control.
Tesman (Maness) is a normal boring man in normal boring debt. He's engaged with his family in normal boring ways and there's something about all that normal earnestness that makes him ridiculous to Hedda. Judge Brack is slightly more interesting.
Brack's a shameless epicurian who favors "back ways." Bill Andrews pours on the smarm and makes Brack Hedda's dirty equal: a confident rapscallion who plays a long game.
Justin Asher is convincing as a newly-dry drunk, all anxious and white-knuckled. His Lovborg's never gotten over booze or his relationship with Hedda, and it's all poison. As his companion, Thea Elvsted, a sad neurotic who left her loveless marriage to assist the troubled writer, Aliza Moran comes across like some displaced member of the Manson family.
When I think of Hedda Gabler a number of positive words leap to mind but "fun" isn't usually one of them. This Hedda is that just that. It's everything you could want from a bad romance with a little something extra.
The last time List was turned loose on the NEXT Stage he turned Shakespeare's Richard III into an off-the-rack black leather bondage fantasy. There's something equally fetish-y about his Hedda, only it works this time around. Because it's not so common. And the bondage is real.