by Wanda Sabir
Britney Frazier is stunning as Hedda Gabler in Cutting Ball Theatre’s current production of 19th-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s classic. Hedda is a spoiled girl who settles on husband Jorgen Tesman because he demands, she says, the least emotionally from her. Francisco Arcila’s Tesman, a scholar, remains preoccupied with his work, yet delights in his wife’s choice of him. Not quite able to afford her, Tesman buys her a house contingent on an appointment at the university he has yet to secure. The story is deceptively simple, but then so is much of life.
What is the stunningly beautiful Hedda to do with herself? She likes to ride horses and shoot at the firing range. At the center of her own constellation, Hedda’s striking entrance into the theatre smoking a cigarette demands attention. In her late 20s, Hedda sees Tesman as a bonus initially. However, the emotional desert she cultivates, which spans the distance between the two, backfires. Hedda finds in the end that she wants to belong, to feel integral to their union, but it is too late. Jorgen finds support in another. Hedda ends up strangled by her own untempered growth.
Director Yury Urnov places his Hedda (Britney Frazier) in a flower conservatory, where all the central characters – aunt, husband and former beaux – are gardeners. Hedda is their collective project, perhaps an archetypical divine feminine or receptacle for Western society. However, Hedda is “the Explorer,” fearful of being trapped or made to conform.
Nonetheless, circumstances cause Hedda to surrender to the patriarchal norms that strangle her, rob her of will and agency, render her life meaningless and void of substantive content, future delight or satisfaction. The botanical dilemma Henrick Ibsen’s Hedda encounters is not unusual. She is among a classic sorority on a block peopled by characters: Mrs. Louise Mallard in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (1894) and Edna Pontellier in “The Awakening” (1899), the unnamed narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892).
I am not sure if this is a white woman’s story or a story tied to class, which means the issues suffocating Hedda have wider cultural applications. Ibsen did not write the work with the marvelous Britney in mind, but this does not lessen the impact she has on a role that challenges audiences to see the character through a different lens. This is complicated by the fact that not only is Hedda snipped; so is Ibsen’s work. The play is tighter and lean in this staged interpretation. The musical direction, mobile set and scene changes, especially the set changes, infuse lightness into the drama.
Actors who latch and unlatch, push and turn the wooden frames to create larger or more intimate spaces wear black derbies and kind of dance along to the cool, hip, new age music with floral lyrics at its core. The set itself imprisons Hedda, who never leaves. She walks between the rooms but seems confined to its interior mechanisms. Even her foil, Mrs. Carla Pauli (actress Thea Elstead), leaves the known world behind. But Hedda is trapped by the comforts of what she knows to be true, even if this knowledge is not satisfactory.
Fallen petals, branches and leaves frame unmet desires. Hedda is framed by other women who stand outside the garden looking in: Aunt Juliane Tesman (Heidi Carlsen), the maid, Berte (Michelle Drexler) and Thea Elstead, a former classmate Hedda tormented. These women attain the freedom that eludes the beautiful Hedda.
Auteurs amputate and plant seeds, hoping for a bounty Hedda desires not. The newlywed wilts before our eyes. As Jorgen grows stronger and more assured, his Hedda grows weaker, prey to weeds which also populate the garden. Hedda’s manipulation of the brilliant writer and scholar, Ejlert Løvborg, backfires in a way she cannot imagine. The play is up through Feb. 26 at Cutting Ball Theatre in San Francisco, 277 Taylor St., 415-525-1205.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.