Review: Hedda Gabler (Alumnae Theatre Company)

By Adam Collier

Alumnae Theatre Company produced Hedda Gabler at its space – a converted firehouse – from November 12th through the 27th 2010.

Going to the show, I had mixed expectations.

Hedda Gabler is generally considered to be a classic. “Either you do Shakespeare or Ibsen,” a friend told me, referring to rites of passage for actors.

But, setting aside the psychological depth of its title character, the language of Hedda Gabler – originally in Norwegian and perennially translated into English – contains few metaphors and idiosyncrasies. As a result, it can sound mechanical in its syntax.

In the opening moments of this play, Hedda Gabler (Sochi Fried) walks into a big room, its furniture draped in dust covers. Then, in erratic bursts, going backwards and forwards, does a sort of dance.

The soundtrack for this opening vignette, an upbeat synthetic string composition, reminded me of something from an early Nintendo game.

Like that burst of choreography and its accompanying soundtrack, the first scene with dialogue struck me as sort of mocking the material, because it seemed so unnatural, to the point of corniness.

Generally, the impression I got was that each actor was working with a single emotion – like chirpy, or nervous, or obsequious, or bratty – for his or her character. I have no inherent objection to emotional caricature. Here though, because the text (translated and adapted by Judith Thompson) is pretty well worn, what I found myself needing – desperately – was emotional range.

Instead I got the sense that each member of the cast was working very hard inside of a limited range. For example James Harbeck (playing George Tesman) seemed intent on making his nerdy, eternally optimistic George into a figure of comic relief. But, because that’s not – in my opinion – always called for, the acting drew attention to itself.

While I get – or at least, I think I get – the logic of the choice to play up that emotion (how else would George endure Hedda?), I found it distracting.

That said, most of the quirks I mention seemed like earnest attempts to infuse energy into the work and make it emotionally accessible. The cast and crew clearly put a lot of energy into the production. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t place myself in the up-tempo, slightly corny production, and had trouble holding my head up through the second act.

All the same, it won’t deter me from the Alumnae Theatre Company generally.