Victim in Charge
The City's Best Theater Artists Under the Spell of Hedda Gabler
blahblahblahBANG (a pistol fit in one act)
Washington Ensemble Theatre at On the Boards
Through Dec 17.
The fact is, this is the production I've been waiting to see all year. It's one of the world's most harrowing plays: Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. It's adapted by the city's best young company: Washington Ensemble Theatre. It's produced by the city's best theater: On the Boards.
It seems weird to be this excited—blahblahblahBANG is based on a 115-year-old play about a bored housewife. And yet I have seven more reasons.
The playwright. Ibsen was a cranky 19th-century Norwegian who kept a scorpion under a beer glass on his writing desk. He found it crawling near his 7-year-old son while the Ibsens were living in Rome. The characters that developed on that desk, next to that scorpion, were dense and perverse, poisoned by frustration. Today their anemic descendents bore audiences in regional theaters around the world, but the originals played out terrifying domestic dramas—Ibsen's closest contemporary analogue might be filmmaker Todd Solondz, with his terrifying domestic drama Happiness.
The character. Hedda Tesman, née Hedda Gabler, is a frustrated prize bride, recently wedded to—and, to her horror, pregnant by—a dorky academic named George. She used to be the belle of every ball but, she explains, "I had danced myself tired; my day was done." She is a distillation of disgust—bored by her husband, revolted by his doting aunt, both repelled by and attracted to the randy neighbor, enthralled with her husband's professional rival, and contemptuous of the rival's sweet and innocent mistress. (Naturally, Hedda also despises the play's only other character, a serving girl.) A mess of resentment, Hedda is a woman with brains and balls—her favorite pastime is shooting her pistols—trapped in a Victorian cage. She's a victim and she's in charge. She wants to be an artist, a writer, a creator. Instead she destroys.
The critical legacy. Critic F. L. Lucas described Hedda Gabler and Emma Bovary, her sensualist counterpart, as "lilies that fester." Playwright John Osborne called her "a loser." Harold Bloom declared she was "horrible and delicious." Like Cleopatra, she gives men fits—she embodies the fear of being sexually and intellectually diminished by one's wife. When William Hazlitt wrote Iago had "great intellectual activity, accompanied by a total want of moral principle, and therefore displaying itself at the constant expense of others," he was really writing about Hedda Gabler.
The actress. If I were to choose five people in the world I'd want to see play Hedda, Marya Sea Kaminski would be on the list. Her acting is easy, unpretentious, but full of ideas. It is also full of tension—Kaminski is luminously alive, but her best work is steeped in a deep understanding of death. Her solo performance in My Name Is Rachel Corrie at the Rep in March was an enormous achievement—it recomplicated the young woman who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 and transformed, by her death, into a political icon. Kaminski has also directed (Finer Noble Gases, about drugs and death in an East Village apartment), created over 20 solo shows (including In DisDress, about the real-life deaths of her father and brother), and proven herself to be fierce (she dominated WET's production of Sarah Kane's Crave, which is all about death). She has been a heavyweight contender for the Stranger Genius Award for years, and has been on the short list twice.
The title. blahblahblahBANG is the most concise possible summary of Hedda Gabler—seven characters talk in a room. Then, a gunshot.
The production. Sitting at a table in a bar last week, director Jennifer Zeyl (2006 Stranger Genius Award winner) explained that the adaptation is a concentration, not a deconstruction: "Our intention isn't to render it unrecognizable—the play is too sturdy for that." The ensemble, led by writer and sound designer Matt Starritt, cut lots of lines but no scenes—in fact, they added scenes only hinted at in the original script, like the brothel where the husband's rival goes to crawl inside a bottle of vodka. (blahblahblahBANG also includes a striptease, which Ibsen didn't hint at.) Also in blahblahblahBANG: actors climbing walls, a braid so long it entangles three people, sexual subtexts—both homo and hetero—made overt, and songs by Bowie, Radiohead, and Joy Division.
The future. WET designed the set (with audience on two sides) for touring. The actors, Zeyl said, should be equally modular: "If Marya isn't available, Rhonda Soikowski [ensemble associate] can play Hedda; if Mikano Fukaya isn't available, Marc Kennison [ditto] can play the maid." Zeyl and Starritt said they might write to Radiohead, to see if they'd like to collaborate on a Radiohedda. They were only half joking.
blahblahblahBANG opens Thursday, December 13. Curtain is at eight.