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Hedda Gabbler at A.C.T.

Trigger Happy

What does a girl do when she has it all? Say beauty, brains, a happy childhood with a view of the fjords of Norway, and a fortunate marriage to a promising young scholar? Add to that a six-month honeymoon with a visit to the seven wonders of the world with a dip into Romes Trevi Fountain, only to return -- potentially enceinte -- to a new home brimming with fancy furniture, books, and a few pistols? Well, if youre Hedda Tesman, ne Gabler (played by Ren Augesen), you start shooting things.

Indeed, the central figure of American Conservatory Theaters production of Henrik Ibsens classic, Hedda Gabler, considers shooting pretty much everything in sight. It could be the hormones, or maybe its the company, but Hedda takes a shot at the tree branches outside her window, pot-shots at the poor family maid, Berte (Barbara Oliver), and even aims her muzzles at the lecherous Commissioner Brack (Jack Willis).

Her limp excuse for a husband, Dr. Jorgen Tesman (Anthony Fusco), is unaccountably left unscathed, potentially too easy a target. But observant as always, Jorgen notes Heddas pistol passion, remarking, I wonder if such things are usual for young wives? Even if Jorgen lacks perception, to this audience member, Augesons Hedda is nothing if not refreshingly unusual -- simultaneously frightening, feral, and seductive, one simply cant anticipate what sort of havoc Hedda will wreak next.

Within the two days in which Hedda Gabler is set, Ibsens dramatic arch concentrates on the peak moment of change in Jorgen and Heddas lives. When Jorgen tells Hedda, One should never allow oneself to traffic in dreams, we see that the Tesmans world is one where the dreams are on the brink of combustion. Theres the unfinished and very expensive house, mortgaged beyond reason. Theres Heddas former lovers brilliant work, still in manuscript form -- a single draft thats both incredibly valuable and vulnerable, threatening Jorgens employment prospects. And then theres Hedda herself, once full of so much potential yet from the moment she appears on stage clearly without hope for the future; she is balancing on the precipice and about to crumble.

Hedda is cynical, conniving, and completely entertaining. In short order, Hedda beguiles her school friend, Mrs. Elvsted (Finnerty Steeves), before coyly seducing her old flame Ejlert Lovborg (Stephen Barker Turner) into succumbing to his baser compulsions. Hedda toys with the commissioner and mocks her husbands aunt, Miss Juliane Tesman (Sharon Lockwood). But none of these actions change her circumstances.

Hedda isnt easily satisfied with cruel amusements. She wants someone to do something beautiful. She wants power and control. She, like her audience, wants drama. As a character brimming with romantic ideals and compulsions for mechanisms, Hedda ultimately believes the grandest and most beautiful gesture of all is the act of utter and complete destruction. And with Augesons riveting portrayal, and A.C.T.s nuanced production, Hedda teeters on the brink of explosion.

Not only is Hedda on the brink, but director Richard E. T. White reveals the Tesman house as a setting that is also somewhere on the brink -- facing the vast fjords, this is a home that is a contradiction, both harsh and epically grand, a convergence of the modern and the Victorian, simultaneously a shelter and a prison for Hedda.

This combination results in a stage set with a classical parlor dressed in heavy, dark wood and lavish drapes surrounded by spare scaffolding and all the accoutrements of an unfinished construction site. The players traverse the outer limits of this space, walking the planks around the house between scenes, slipping under branches and between the houses eaves, thus allowing for a merging of the indoors with the outdoors, as well as a convergence of different time periods and architectural styles.

This straddling of different eras is also reflected in the costumes, with characters garments reflecting both the 19th and the 20th Centuries fashions. With this, most characters wear classical Victorian clothing -- details found in their pocket watches, stiff collars, and bustles. But Heddas clothing reveals how she is different from the other characters; a woman from another time period, potentially a proto-feminist, Augeson wears loose smocks and riding habits with silky split-pants, both reminiscent of a 1970s Cotys commercial.

Though these details are subtle and never jarring, they suggest Heddas place as one of the most progressive and timeless characters to ever walk the boards. Though written over one hundred years ago, Hedda Gabler is still refreshingly contemporary, and A.C.T.s production is complicated, intriguing, and not to be missed.

Hedda Gabbler
runs through March 11
at American Conservatory Theater
box office: 415.749.2228
tickets $18 82