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Beware the bored faculty wife

Theater Review: "Hedda" at MuCCC 

Beware the bored faculty wife

The most unheroic of heroines is currently appearing at MuCCC in "Hedda," an adaptation by M.L.P. Carroll of Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" that brings some interesting changes on the original. Carroll changes the setting from late 19th-century Norway to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1948. Hedda (Meredith Powell) is returning to town from a long, arid honeymoon with her husband George Tesman (Ted Wenskus), an aspiring academic at Yale University who is more interested in his research than in his new wife.

And she is not at all happy with the faculty-wife life she has chosen for herself in what seems to her to be a stifling, WASPy backwater. In fact, the action of the play depends on Hedda's boredom, her selfishness, and her many bad choices -- not to mention her disconcerting habit of playing with a set of pistols left her by her father, a war hero who has cast a long show over her life.

After a long and laborious set-up (Ibsen's doing, not Carroll's), Hedda causes a spiral of destruction with a few well-placed, malicious words to an old beau, Elliott Lovborg (Don Beechner), a talented writer and recovering alcoholic, who is competing with George for a tenured teaching post. We also have Hedda's "school friend" Thea Elvsted (Karen Craft), who is married to a politician but having an affair with Lovborg; a rather mysterious Judge (R. Emmett Michie) who is also part of Hedda's murky past; George's doting aunt (Midge Marshall); and the Tesmans' Irish maid (Lory Love Restivo), who can't seem to please her new mistress, as if anyone could.

Inspired and helped by Thea, Lovborg has recently written a successful book. He has just finished an even better one; unfortunately he has the bad habit of carrying the only copy of the manuscript around with him. And once Hedda finds out about all this ... well, let's say there are a few more twists and turns in the story, and it doesn't end well for anybody, least of all for her.

"Hedda Gabler" is often regarded as a vehicle for the leading actress, and some great ones have played her. Carroll and director Michael Arve share the notion of the play as an ensemble piece, with Hedda (in Carroll's words), despite her dreams of a heroic life, "actually the weakest person in the play." This approach makes sense, but I have to admit that Meredith Powell makes a magnetic Hedda; in fact, it's hard to take your eyes off her when she's onstage. She plays the haughty ice-queen with the people around her, but there is doubt, fear, and self-loathing evident in her eyes -- a very valid approach for this role.

The supporting actors are a plausible ensemble of "good people" (well, mostly good people) to set against Hedda. Michie is both dapper and slimy as the judge; Karen Craft gives a spine to the supposedly mousy Thea, who turns out to be a much stronger woman than Hedda realizes; and Ted Wenskus is the model of a shy, self-absorbed academic as George Tesman. The role of Elliott Lovborg strikes me as very difficult role to bring off -- from respectable intellectual to raving drunk. Don Beechner suggests the shaky confidence of the recovering alcoholic from his first appearance, so his fall off the wagon, while very sudden, is at least plausible.

Different aspects of the play -- the stifling social conventions, the academic competition, the dull, limited lives of married women without jobs or other concerns -- all fall quite neatly into the 1948 timeframe, and Carroll's adjustments make certain aspects of the original clearer (to me, anyway). For example, the contrast between the plodding academic George and the visionary Elliott has always struck me as a bit glib, but Powell fleshes it out -- and seems to enjoy making George's research sound as humorously dull as possible.

Powell's change of setting also brings out Ibsen's satiric humor; this adaptation, with its handsome living-room set, sounds like Ibsen but plays almost like Philip Barry, at least until things get really bleak. "Hedda" remains a classic, as dense, provocative, and thought-provoking as always.

After Hedda fires her last shot this Saturday night, a host of local theater and dance groups will begin MuCCCFest. The festival begins Sunday, June 15, with a program of short plays and ending Sunday, June 22, with a reading of a new play. What the groups involved may lack in budgets they more than make up for in creativity, as you can see from the list below. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. unless otherwise noted, but check for up-to-date details for any production.

Sunday, June 15, 7 p.m.: Short plays by Louie Podlaski, Rebecca Solomon, and others, directed by the authors and Karen Tuccio.

Monday, June 16: Classics Theater of Rochester: The Theban Plays of Sophocles.

Tuesday, June 17: DVC presents a reading of "She Kills Monsters," a play by Qui Nguyen.

Wednesday, June 18: Laurie MacFarlane Dance; and "A Different Normal," a new play by Justin Rielly, with the author present.

Thursday, June 19: Out of Pocket Productions presents a reading of "Glengarry Glen Ross" by David Mamet.

Friday, June 20: The Basement Players present a reading of "A Lie of the Mind" by Sam Shepard.

Saturday, June 21, 2-5 p.m.: Children's Theater produced by Annette Ramos, featuring Kim Niles' "Hamlette."

Saturday, June 21, 7:30 p.m.: Laurie MacFarlane/Ruben Ornelas Dance; and Lady Parts Theatre Co. presents a reading of "Rabbit Hole" by David Lindsay-Abaire.

Sunday, June 22, 2 p.m.: Reading of "Mammoth," a new play by Katherine Royal, with the author present.

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