Review: ‘Hedda Gabler’ at Studio Theatre

Hedda Tesman, aka., Hedda Gabler, has it all: beauty, grace, status, ambition, wit, and feminine mystique.

Foreground: Julia Coffey. Background: Michael Early, Kimiye Corwin, and Avery Clark. Photo by Allie Dearie.

Foreground: Julia Coffey. Background: Michael Early, Kimiye Corwin, and Avery Clark. Photo by Allie Dearie.

And, per usual, it’s the mystique that does her in.

Studio Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, in a new version by Irish playwright and film writer Mark O’Rowe, explodes all the feminine mystique that money can buy and leaves nothing but blood and brains as its marker.

The challenge of contemporary portrayals of Hedda always falls on the scandal.

Shane Kenyon and Julia Coffey. Theatre. Photo by Allie Dearie.

Shane Kenyon and Julia Coffey. Theatre. Photo by Allie Dearie.

Ibsen’s Hedda feared scandal the way contemporary Americans fear Ebola: it’s a game changer.

On the other hand, contemporary Americans feed on scandal: it adds spice to an otherwise bourgeois life.

O’Rowe’s version of Hedda still has that scandal thing rattling around like a skeleton inside a closet, but in Director Matt Torney’s vision of the General’s daughter scandal plays second fiddle.

Playing the lead is Dionysus himself: the god that takes all the beauty of this world, all the finely sculpted elegance, and splatters it across the canvas (or the keyboard), as the case may be.

Julia Coffey embodies Hedda and, seemingly, Dionysus himself possesses her. Her Hedda is as sharp as an ice pick, yet is not afraid to wield a cudgel when the need arises to bash a few heads. Coffey’s Hedda shifts on a dime from sweet as sugar plums to ferocious as tigers, and you are never quite sure what her caged beast of a self might do next.

And might I add that Costume Designer Murell Horton has done a superb job donning her Hedda in stunning variety. From “lay around the house” morning attire, to a voluptuous red party dress, to lacey “you can’t be too thin” funeral attire, Horton’s costumes transform Hedda’s physique as distinctly as Ms. Coffey does her character.

Avery Clark plays Hedda’s in-over-his-head-husband Jorge with a delightful naïveté. To the very end he thinks he has a trophy wife, not a woman on the verge of a….

The counterpoint “odd couple”, Thea and Ejlert, played by Kimiye Corwin and Shane Kenyon, do an excellent job shining light on the dynamics of form versus function, which is so at the root of this startling Hedda.

Corwin’s Thea shines as a marriage survivor with a pearl of convictions. Unassuming, yet bold and passionate, her Thea surprises the audience with her explosives almost as frequently as Hedda does.

Meanwhile, Kenyon’s Ejlert has a bit of the Dionysian in him as well, even if his vessel cannot compare to Hedda’s; for when he explodes his brutality is more pitiable than terror-filled.

And then there is the cool, manipulative Judge Brack, played by Michael Early. His scenes with Coffey’s Hedda are not leaden with sinister intent as is so frequently seen in this pre-feminist world, but rather these scenes drip with honest displays of power, punch and counterpunch, and to the victor lay the spoils.

Rounding out the cast is Kimberly Schraf as the motherhood-obsessed Julle Tesman and Rosemary Regan as the long-suffering Berte. Both actresses add a much needed contrast to Hedda Gabler’s landscape of femininity.  

Julia Coffey and Michael Early. Photo by Allie Dearie.

Julia Coffey and Michael Early. Photo by Allie Dearie.

The set, designed by Luciana Stecconi, is a combination of sleek and big curtains; and Lighting Designer Scott Zielinski ripples the stage with shadow and light.

One weakness in the production, and I’m hoping it’s more technical than conceptual, lay in the sound design by Fitz Patton. Let’s just say it was confusing and distracting, and not at all enlightening.

You will not find any easy solutions to the heart of Hedda Gabler in this production, and if you are easily flummoxed by bizarre behavior oozing with Freudian implications, you will definitely leave the theatre scratching your head and wondering: “What’s that lady’s problem?”

But if you can imagine that some of us are not meant for this world, that some of us hold on to some magically wonderful world that cannot, or would never, actually exist, then this Hedda Gabler with its ferocious heroine yearning for beauty and grandeur yet so unprepared to attain it, delivers.

Dionysus takes a woman’s form and sets the stage ablaze.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

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Hedda Gabler plays through June 19, 2016, at Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

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2 Responses to Review: ‘Hedda Gabler’ at Studio Theatre

  1. John Goodwell May 23, 2016 at 10:51 am #

    Your review of “Hedda Gabler” was an exploration of the play as well as reflections upon the Studio’s staging of this prized work by Henrik Ibsen. One minor distraction that I found in this production was the use of certain 19th century practices during the 21st century in which this version was set. For instance, it seemed most strange to employ the antique practice of delivering letters at all times of the day or night by messengers who were not part of the postal service. I wonder why the director did not update this old form of communication with a text sent by wireless phone. Another example of this somewhat jarring juxtaposition of the outdated with the modern was the use of a kerosene lamp in a luxurious home like Hedda’s. Candles would be fine in her house but a lantern is more appropriate for a hermit’s cave. Studio Theatre has again brought new life to a true treasure from our theatrical past. Without a doubt, the May 22 performance that I saw, earned my standing ovation at curtain call. You gave the drama 5 stars but I give it only 4 because the dialogue at times traveled at such a rapid pace it was difficult to follow. In addition, I think that this quick tempo made it difficult for the cast to convey fully the wide-ranging and fascinating aspects of their characters.

  2. Ravelle Brickman May 30, 2016 at 1:16 pm #

    I agree that the mixture of time–merging 19th, 20th and 21st century details–did not work.

    Instead of creating a sense of timelessness, it produced a mess of contradictions and distractions that took away from an otherwise brilliant performance.

    Personally, I would have chosen some period in the past–any period, from the 1890s to the 1940s–and then kept the props and setting consistent. If there are kerosene lamps and a wood-burning fire, then don’t give us a dust-buster! And if Eiljar is still writing by hand, then get rid of the tattoos and hippie image!