Ah, the archetypal villainess: she picks up the scent of your emotional insecurities and impending personal mishaps and goes catnip crazy. For Henrik Ibsen’s title character Hedda Gabler, however, various interpretations can yield very different Heddas: she can be a subject of sympathy, a strong prototypical feminist, or a downright vile ice queen. With its modern take on Ibsen’s 19th century classic
, East West Theatre takes the humorous route and blends all three tropes in Sara Garcia’s portrayal of Hedda, inspiring a curious love-hate relationship with a character who often seems despicable to the core.
Just as her life seems set to become the tediously prosaic bourgeois existence she’d always dreaded, Hedda’s days as a prematurely weary newlywed are interrupted by the return of two people from her past: Thea Elvsted (Kate Shaper), a former schoolmate who remembers young Hedda as a bellicose bully of the Mean Girls
variety, has come to request that Hedda’s new husband George Tesman (Ashok Zaman) help her locate and rein in her former flame Eilert Lovborg (Paul Collins), since the men were once intellectual peers before Eilert skipped town long ago. To the Tesmans’ surprise, Thea reveals that Eilert is now back with the success of a recently published book under one arm, and the completed manuscript of a sure hit under the other. The problem: George thought he’d locked in a professorship that would enable him to pay for the comforts and luxuries that Hedda expects to have, but Eilert’s return and newfound acclaim may put all of that in jeopardy.
What follows is a gripping tale of destruction — what can happen when someone a little bit bored and a little bit evil makes an entirely unwarranted decision to apply her gifts of manipulation and acute verbal whiplashes (and even a bit of hair-pulling) to jolt those around her out of the comfortable humdrum of their middle-class lives. Anyone too good-natured and earnest in winning Hedda’s love and approval are met with double doses of her aristocratic snobbery and scorn — her new maid Berta (Jayne Olschak) is simply terrified of her, and even the matriarch of the Tesman family, George’s aunt Juliana (Sue Brooks), is deferential to her. As Hedda’s favorite emotional punching bag, Zaman plays George’s oafish obliviousness to excellent comedic effect, and pulls off the profound earnestness of Tesman so well that you can’t really fault him for being a bit of a pragmatic goof.
The only person with whom Hedda lets her guard down is jovial sleazeball Judge Brack (Dave Earl), a friend of George’s who has helped the Tesmans secure their current financial stability, and who also takes the chance to hit on Hedda whenever George isn’t around. Perhaps it’s because she recognizes him as the only other morally ambiguous character in the play, but Hedda reveals truths about herself and her disconcerting frame of mind only to Brack, making their private moments particularly fascinating.
While the entire cast is excellent, the credibility of the whole production hinges on Garcia’s portrayal of Hedda, and Garcia does not disappoint. She haughtily deadpans some of the biggest laughs in the show, and her physicality is just spot-on, seemingly charming and full of grace, but complemented by small movements that belie the more aggressive, arrogant and manipulative attitude that lurks beneath the surface. Garcia nails every sideways glance, sardonic smile, eye roll and eyebrow raise, and consistently conveys a sense of quiet control with her firm body posture and slow, deliberate steps.
East West handles the script superbly and delivers an entirely engrossing cast, all while making the best of set and venue restrictions. Though the conspicuous creaks of the stage floor or thunderous rumbles coming from the front door may create the occasional diversion, the strength of the performances quickly draws you back into Hedda’s world.
And don’t let the phrase “19th century” send you running off for the nearest movie theater: it’s an older play, but you wouldn’t know it from this production — the dialogue is not muddied by old-fashioned language, costumes are updated for a contemporary audience, the pace of the action is nice and fluid. With Hedda Gabler, East West has done a marvelous job at bringing a modern production of a classic play that will be pleasantly accessible and compelling to new and established stage enthusiasts alike.
Hedda Gabler is on this Thursday, November 15 to Sunday November 18 at the Rooftop Events Space in Anken Green. Tickets: 160rmb in advance, 200rmb on the door, 150rmb student concessions. For reservations and further information call 182 0216 4553 or email east.west.info[at]gmail.com. More info here.