Hedda Gabler
Printer's Devil Theatre at the former Sand Point Naval Base, Bldg 67, Rm 110, 7400 Sand Point Way NE, 328-2690. Thurs-Sun at 8; $10 Thurs & Sun, $15 Fri-Sat. Pay-what-you-can performances on Thurs Oct 26, Nov 2 & 9. Through Nov 18.

MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE of the new Printer's Devil production of Hedda Gabler began way before the on-stage action did. To get to the show, my friend and I had to drive 20 minutes to the far north. By the time we got to Sand Point, the wet, windy night had turned completely dark and we got lost. We drove around until we found a small, hard- to-read red-and-black sign outside a building that said HEDDA GABLER, then went into a small, cold, white, rectangular room. The walls were cinder block and the polite conversation we made echoed mercilessly. I felt closed in. I said I needed to go to the bathroom and was told by the nice gal handling the tickets that the bathrooms were two Honey Buckets in the parking lot. She offered me a flashlight with which to find my way. I didn't take it; I should have. When I got back from the porta potty, there were more people in the foyer and it felt like we were on top of each other, like everyone could overhear everything. We stood around awkwardly until the ticket gal led us through a creepily skinny hallway and into a big, drafty hangar of a room. It was also cold and white, with bright, annoyingly buzzy overhead lights. The actors were already moving, hauling boxes and furniture around. It was like we'd arrived too early and were intruding.

I'm telling you all of this because Ibsen once said that anyone who wanted to understand him would have to understand Norway, and this pre-play experience of shitty weather, cold white rooms, personal self-consciousness, politely nervous group behavior, and primitive plumbing felt about as close as I've ever been to late 19th-century Norway. It was a perfect lead-in to this excellent production.

Beautiful Hedda Gabler (Heidi Schreck) has recently married the nerdy academic George Tesman (Matt Ford) and they have just moved into their expensive new house. Throughout the play, actors take boxes in and out of the moving van, rearrange furniture, and dig around in wads of packing paper. This production, the set tells us, is about restlessness and incompleteness, about always shifting things around and never getting them how you want. It's about not fitting into your life.

When George's Aunt Julie (Carolyn Crabtree) arrives to welcome the newlyweds, Hedda--though she looks as sweet as a young Hayley Mills--frostily observes how early it is for a visit. Aunt Julie's face falls; Hedda has made her feel the way the audience did when we arrived: unwelcome, cloddish. As soon as Tesman and his aunt leave Hedda alone, Schreck's face tightens. She thrusts her fists into the air and paces around like a caged Joan Crawford. She stomps over to a switch and cuts off those annoyingly buzzing overhead lights. Then she stands still a moment in the brief quiet and looks simultaneously triumphant and angry and lost. Meet Hedda Gabler.

The audience sits in 30 chairs arranged in a semi-circle; the moving van is in front of you. Most of the action takes place within the semi-circle, but some takes place behind it so you have to turn around to see, and some takes place behind the van so you can't see, but only can hear the characters quarreling. It's inventive, thematically appropriate directing. Printer's Devil, which has no fixed performance space of its own, has made a specialty of visually symbolic direction, mounting shows on the Kalakala ferry and at the old Pacific Dessert Company, as well as at more standard venues. But this production strikes me as the most cohesive, aesthetically balanced work of theirs I've seen.

Schreck is supported by some fine players. Matt Ford is sweetly convincing as the hopelessly boring Tesman. Carolyn Crabtree gives a terrific and sympathetic range to the relatively small part of Aunt Julie. Deron "the Voice" Bos is adequate as the not-quite-reformed drunken writer Eilert Lovberg, but I'm looking forward to more range in his future work. Tricia Rodley was authentically wimpy as Thea Elvstead, a victim of Hedda's cruelty.

After this chilling, deliciously oppressive Ibsen evening, I was glad to get into a heated car and drive south toward home. I want my smart friends to see this show. I'm telling them to dress warm.