Friday, April 8, 2011

SVSU's "Hedda Gabler" offers trio of fine performances from men

review by Janet I. Martineau
Think Joan Collins in the television series “Dynasty.”
Ok, granted than is an over-simplification, and probably an insult, but that is who  Ibsen’s classic “Hedda Gabler” character reminds me of, at least in the 1972 British-flavored John Osborne adaptation of the Norwegian play as staged by Saginaw Valley State University.
One nasty, conniving, sarcastic, narcissistic bitch.
But at least in “Dynasty,” many of the other characters in the nighttime soap opera were likable and above board.
Not so in “Hedda Gabler.” They are, to a person, bad news. It does not seem so at first, but in twists here and there as they play progresses the viewer is left with this question: Was Hedda born evil or has she become that way to survive in the shark tank where she lives?
Either way, Ibsen’s gun-toting, drinking, manipulative Hedda, created in 1890, is one fascinating character who continues to fascinate more than a century later. A look at the who’s who of actresses who have portrayed her over those 100 years, as well as the many adaptations penned,  is proof that she can be interpreted in countless ways. And not just as Ibsen may have seen her  -- trapped and responding liked a coiled snake to the way women were treated in the Victorian era.
Director Steven C. Eickson has a strong cast for this show, and a gorgeous detail-rich set designed by Jerry Dennis.
Opening night Thursday made us think Caitlyn Walsh is not quite there yet as the title character. But, then, it is hard to tell because Hedda is one cold, and bored,  fish. Still, even within that coldness and alleged boredom there can be telling mannerisms showing the inner turmoil,  and it is not quite there yet with Walsh. She delivers the lines with the right biting wit (there are surprising laughs in this more contemporary  adaptation), but her body English needs more definition.
What Erickson has is a trio of strong male performances.
Andrew Switlaski is superb as Hedda’s sniveling, weak, giddy, nervous husband, who nearly falls apart when he thinks he is not going to receive a position he has counted on getting, Every fiber of Switlaski is invested in his George Tesman. Good lord, why would ANYONE want to bet married to this bundle of nerves. 
Rusty Myers as Judge Brack, a slimy family friend and confidant, just seems up to something not trustworthy from the first scene he enters. Like Hedda, he is aloof and cocky and manipulative. And Myers keeps that persona cooking until it reaches a boiling point.
Isaac Zimmer is Lovborg, the former lover of Hedda now “attached” to a married woman who comes to visit Hedda -- and enough there as to not spoil what takes place beyond that. Zimmer is solid as a quirky and nervous young author who gradually falls apart.
As proof again that small parts often deliver big performances, Robin Karnes is a joy to watch as the suffering family maid, Bertha -- hunched over, shuffling through the rooms constantly tidying things, responding quickly when the bell is rung, stoking the fire. Her lines are few but her body English speaks volumes. (She also apparently is a gifted artist, given a program credit for the massive portrait of Hedda’s father which dominates the set).
As noted before, the set by Dennis is rich with Victorian-era detail -- “gas” lamps, “heavy” furniture, muted colors, dark woods, a series of wall “frames” creating a sense of depth, a gas stove, a Victrola.
Also adding to the mood and atmosphere is the use of music by Ibsen’s fellow Norwegian Edvard Grieg from  Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”; elegant costumes designed by Elise Shannon;  various sounds designed by David Ryan, and Tom Klinoswki’s lighting.
Bravo also to the dressers who transform Walsh quickly. And we love how Erickson keeps Walsh sort of circling her prey throughout -- they keep moving away from her, but soon she is once again hovering in their face and making the discomfort level rise in them and in us.
Big challenge, this show. Big challenge nicely executed.

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