Volume 78 - Number 36 / February 4 - 10 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


By Henrik Ibsen
New adaptation by Christopher Shinn
Directed by Ian Rickson
Through March 29
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St.
212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org

Photo credit Nigal Parry / Cpi

Michael Cerveris, Peter Storemare (background) and Mary-Louise Parker in “Hedda Gabler,” Ibsen’s 1890 Scandinavian drama, now on Broadway.

The Americanization of ‘Hedda Gabler’

New adaptation of Ibsen’s classic doesn’t quite translate

By Scott Harrah

Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” is a theatrical staple worldwide, revived as often as any classic by Shakespeare or the ancient Greek playwrights. Because “Hedda Gabler” has been performed so many times, it’s always open to new interpretations. Roundabout’s latest version features “Weeds” star Mary-Louise Parker as Hedda, and an updated script by Christopher Shinn that often dilutes or totally alters Ibsen’s elegant dialogue. The result is an awkward, Americanized version of this quintessentially Scandinavian drama that fails on so many levels. Shinn and director Ian Rickson’s “Hedda Gabler” is nothing like the Ibsen play one may have read or seen in several film adaptations.

Besides the choppy, doctored script and silly sound effects, the amateurish performances by some cast members totally butcher Ibsen’s venerable 1890 tale of a neurotic housewife. Hedda, as played in previous productions by everyone from Ingrid Bergmann to Cate Blanchett, is supposed to be an icy, manipulative aristocrat, but Parker simply plays her as a cruel harridan.

Don’t get the wrong idea, as the Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony-winning Mary-Louise Parker certainly gives a memorable, controversial take on Hedda. However, the all-American Parker appears to have no concept of the complexities and nuances of a Norwegian newlywed who takes out her anger on the loss of her former free life by being mean to everyone in her path. Parker’s Hedda is full of petulance, but she lacks the elegance and grace of an upper-class Nordic lady in the late 19th century. This may partially be the fault of Christopher Shinn, the “Dying City” playwright who has adapted Ibsen’s translated play for 21st century audiences. So many of Ibsen’s florid lines have been cut or changed, and this makes it difficult for any of the actors to do the characters justice.

Hedda Gabler, the daughter of a wealthy general, is a role often considered “the female Hamlet,” and in most productions she’s played as a woman who clings to her former identity and refuses to embrace the world of her dull academic husband, Jorgen Tesman (played here with curious mediocrity by the usually superb Michael Cerveris). Parker’s Hedda is simply a black-hearted villainess, and she lacks the requisite sparks and emotional subtlety to make the character truly convincing. Cerveris is rather bland and has no chemistry with her. This is crucial in a story that relies so heavily on the leads to make the story -- already somewhat anachronistic and loaded with literary mothballs -- come to life.

It doesn’t help that some cast members give performances that seem like those of high school students -- not Broadway professionals. Ana Reeder is totally miscast as Mrs. Thea Elvsted, the frustrated middle-class woman who leaves her husband and stepchildren to follow budding author Ejlert Lovborg (Paul Sparks), one of Hedda’s old flames. Reeder delivers her lines by rote, and in some of the play’s key scenes, her emotional meltdowns and crying jags are completely unbelievable.

Swedish actor Peter Stormare, the only genuine Scandinavian in this too-American production, plays Judge Brack and is the sole person on stage speaking in an authentic accent for the play’s setting, but his delivery is weak. Storemare comes across as a clunky, robotic milquetoast when Judge Brack is supposed to be an imposing man of power and influence. Only Helen Carey, as Juliane Tesman, Jorgen’s aunt, truly shines here, wonderfully portraying a doting woman who seems truly concerned about her nephew’s loveless marriage to Hedda.

There are a few nice touches in this production, such as Hildegard Bechtler’s innovative set and Ann Roth’s glossy period costumes. British indie rocker PJ Harvey composes some marvelously eerie original music for the show, but unfortunately it doesn’t gel well with a story that takes place more than 100 years ago.

Director Ian Rickson -- who received much acclaim for last fall’s revival of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” -- is unable to get most of the cast to work together as a cohesive unit, and that’s a shame considering “Hedda Gabler” is an icon of historical theater that cannot work today without a competent acting ensemble.

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