You might not recognize the name, but you certainly know what its owner was infamous for. Rhoda Penmark was the charming, psychopathic 8-year-old from the 1956 movie “The Bad Seed” who went around offing people for their minor trinkets — at the end of the film, and per the day’s Hollywood protocol (the baddies pretty much had to die), she’s struck and killed by lightning while trying to retrieve an ill-gotten penmanship medal. Two years earlier, “Bad Seed” opened on Broadway; in the play, Rhoda survives, her murderous sensibilities intact.
The Broadway Rhoda postdates Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler Tesman by 63 years — but if the timetable had been reversed, Hedda is the woman little Rhoda would’ve become. She never knew a time she didn’t get what she wanted, but like Rhoda, her pathological material cravings far outweighed the sense of morality within her victories. She better have a blast at your party, lest it be the last you throw.
Comes now a new English translation of Ibsen’s iconic Hedda Gabler at North Coast Repertory Theatre, remarkable in that it’s written by local Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey, Sweden-born SDSU theater professor emerita and speaker of Ibsen’s native Norwegian. Out of context, Harvey’s effort has everything to recommend it; her breezy language is refreshing and even funny, its cadence seamlessly fueling character interaction and story development. But history holds that Hedda is a thoroughly tragic figure, and it does that for a reason — and while this translation looks and sounds just great, it isn’t necessarily a marker for the Hedda yet to be explored.
In one final triumphal declaration, she joins Lovborg, courtesy a bullet to the temple.
As it turns out, Hedda, a general’s daughter, was born with a silver spoon up her butt. She married Jorgen Tesman because the days of her youth have passed her by, but soon, she finds life with him insular and boring. For his part, milquetoast academician Tesman is clueless on Hedda’s dissatisfaction — he does everything she tells him without complaint, which is how his new book comes off (i.e., nondescript and dull). Compare that with the work of friend Eilert Lovborg, whose second burly tome is loopy with daring and controversy (sort of how Hedda likes her men).
Lovborg’s elation is short-lived, however. He thinks he lost his manuscript to a night of partying, and his sorrow fuels a successful suicide try. In reality, Hedda has burned the book in a desperate attempt to shed her lethargy and reshape the great Lovborg’s future. In one final triumphal declaration, she joins Lovborg, courtesy a bullet to the temple.
This script is a world-beater by any name, with Ibsen’s sense of character give-and-take placing him among his craft’s elite. The subtext is rampant with interrelationships big and small — Judge Brack’s (Ray Chambers) time-tested savvy and Tesman maid Berte’s (Rhona Gold) sense of duty are as big and colorful as Hedda herself. Hedda’s fascination with dad’s guns; her disdain for Mrs. Elvsted’s (Mel House) “irritating hair”; her talent for killing everyone around her with kindness: She’s as formidable as the boredom she laments, deserving of no less than her lofty stature in the artistic annals of the Western world.
While Harvey’s dialogues are by no means a buzz-kill, they do tend to mute the chasmic darkness Ibsen has wrought. Yes, Hedda’s cracks about Jorgen’s fixation on his slippers are funny and superbly delivered; yes, Lovborg’s dismay at breaking his sobriety is heartfelt and resolute; but for all its wit and presence of mind, this story comes off as a lightly dressed bedroom farce, replete with the genre’s legato vocals and preordained entrances and exits. Hedda and her ilk are rife with the means to explore her deepest, darkest recesses yet again; this translation rarely delves past the periphery in reconciling Hedda’s suicide.
… [A]mid its gangly, almost punch-drunk orations, Bruce Turk’s performance as Tesman is the best in the show.
I’ve gone on about this show as though its demerits outweigh its strengths, and I don’t mean to. Director David Ellenstein is terrific as he susses out the nuances of the language and crafting the rhythms that please the ear. Mhari Sandoval’s squealy Hedda is a vision as she scurries about the stage putting out fires (pun intended, I guess); Richard Baird’s Lovborg needs no introduction; Cristina Soria’s Aunt Juliane is as family oriented a matriarch as you’ll find; and amid its gangly, almost punch-drunk orations, Bruce Turk’s performance as Tesman is the best in the show.
One look at the lighting grid shows how hard Matthew Novotny worked on his design. Melanie Chen’s sound and Elisa Benzoni’s costumes are dead ringers, peppering Marty Burnett’s siena set (maybe the overtrimmed walls represent a cell through which Hedda can’t escape while keeping out the unwanted).
But for all its artistic prowess, this production is a new translation before it’s anything else. Hedda’s personality disorders are many and varied, and they require a speech-driven excursion into another world. Here, we get not so much a pathology report as an executive summary.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of June 4. Hedda Gabler runs through June 26 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 927-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. 858-481-1055, northcoastrep.org.