This Hedda, the program says, is "by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Nikki Przasnyski, with additional text from Euripides, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, Janis Joplin, Wendy O. Williams, and the Los Angeles County Coroner." It opens with Hedda prostrate on the floor, surrounded by women we'll later learn are Lady Macbeth, Medea, and Ophelia, along with Plath, Joplin, and Williams. Powerful women in history or fiction—also all (at least sort of) suicides. As Hedda rises from the floor in the middle of this crowd, we hear bits of Plath's "Edge," which ends with the deliciously extra-Plathy line "Her blacks crackle and drag."
The women mostly sit on the edges of the stage—the play is performed in the round—as silent (and sometimes whispering) witnesses. Hedda (Melissa Fenwick) seems to sense their presence, occasionally channeling their lines. Hedda Gabler remains beloved, hated, and fascinating more than a century after Ibsen wrote her; it seems everyone has to take a stand on her story. She's a victim of society, a predatory sociopath, lusty, crazy, hopeless, fierce. Here, Fenwick chooses a personality over an archetype, which is nice. Her Hedda is believably restless, bored, often funny, and cruel as if by accident or compulsion, like a reflex she can't control. She's a schoolyard mean girl, all grown up. Her bumbling husband (Paul Neet) wears plaid high-water pants and provides further comic relief.
But these women on the edges—they're lying in wait, sometimes literally stalking Hedda across the room. In a quiet moment, Ophelia rises and follows Hedda, tapping her shoulder and turning to perform that scene so many women (myself included) have written college papers about: Ophelia's brother's and father's obnoxious chastity lectures. You know: Don't let Hamlet "open" your "chaste treasure," "think yourself a baby," blah, blah, blah. These intrusions, instead of being gimmicky, give the show richness and context. Hedda's lover's manuscript—which she destroys—is referred to as a child. When Medea stands up to deliver lines preparing herself to kill her children, she could be talking about the wheels turning in Hedda's head. At the end, an actor reads Janis Joplin's autopsy report.
The material is ruthless and alluring, and so is the music: Regina Spektor, the Noisettes, Florence + the Machine, Bikini Kill, and a Tears for Fears cover: "I find it kind of funny/I find it kind of sad/The dreams in which I'm dying/Are the best I've ever had." Ha!
This stuff is not for everyone. The production happens in a small basement, put on by people who seem young and nervous. But the balls of this show! Excuse me—the ovaries of this show! Przasnyski needs chutzpah to reload Hedda Gabler with six other violent and complex characters. The sidelines are a seething riot of iconic women who gave in to darker impulses. They're calling to Hedda to join them.