Review: “Hedda Gabler” at the Cutting Ball Theatre

“Hedda Gabler will be 75 minutes long with no intermission” says the program handed out to audience members before the show begins. What? How on earth can someone transform Ibsen’s 2-and-a-half-hour masterpiece of manners into a taught one act piece? Well, judging by the Cutting Ball’s new production, the answer is: not very effectively, though you can’t fault it for lack of trying.

Translated to be as colloquial as any modern play and directed by Russian theatre artist Yury Urnov, this Hedda Gabler is presented on an abstract set of metal window frames and features a cast of actors who have apparently been told to mug it as hard as they possibly can. Every character has their own bizarre mixture of traits and physicality that often seem in direct conflict with Ibsen’s work. Aunt Tesman holds a metallic claw reminiscent of the Marvel comic character Wolverine, bearing a grotesque snarl the entire time she is onstage. Ejlert Løvborg holds a pitchfork in a phallic manner and cavorts himself about like the apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey as reimagined as a lumberjack. The result is a bizarre work that attempts to come across as a sort of absurdist comedy, albeit one without more than two or three laughs.

I’ll grant the Cutting Ball’s Hedda Gabler this: it’s a genuinely bold take on a perhaps overly familiar play, with a completely formed directorial viewpoint that is sustained from opening to close. Unfortunately, it’s a huge swing and a miss; a disaster of somewhat spectacular proportions, and while I respect any production that has the guts to be spectacular, disaster or not, I can’t recommend others to go see it for themselves. Ultimately, most of the blame must rest on director Yury Urnov, whose aesthetics seem fundamentally at odds with Hedda Gabler, and Ibsen is not the kind of playwright that can easily be re-interpreted. I’d be fascinated to see Urnov’s attempts at Shakespeare or Chekhov, who have proven time-and-again that reworking their plays can reveal new and unexpected delights, but Ibsen, being as rigid and icy and his Norwegian homeland, seems like infertile territory for him.

The Cutting Ball’s 7-member cast works very hard, despite being given some of the most bizarre acting direction I’ve ever seen, and Britney Frazier almost makes her Hedda, which is portrayed as overly modern and reminiscent of a bratty 8th grade bully—a decidedly awkward take on the regal and nihilistic aesthete that is the titular character—, work. Jacquelyn Scott’s abstract scenic design is always interesting and Hamilton Guillén’s lighting design works wonders, including a fabulous coup de théâtre that ends the show in explosive fashion.

It’s a shame that this Hedda Gabler doesn’t work. It may be a swing and a miss, but it was aiming for the fences.

It should be noted that my own aversion to the production was clearly personal. For those interested in a perspective of someone who loved this Hedda Gabler, you can read my friend Charles Kruger’s review here.

Hedda Gabler plays at the EXIT on Taylor through February 26th. Tickets and information available here.

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