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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 Rome’s Trevi Fountain, only to return -- potentially enceinte -- to a new home brimming with fancy furniture, books, and a few pistols? Well, if you’re Hedda Tesman, née Gabler (played by René Augesen), you start shooting things.

Indeed, the central figure of American Conservatory Theater’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, “Hedda Gabler”, considers shooting pretty much everything in sight. It could be the hormones, or maybe it’s 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 Hedda’s pistol passion, remarking, “I wonder if such things are usual for young wives?” Even if Jorgen lacks perception, to this audience member, Augeson’s Hedda is nothing if not refreshingly unusual -- simultaneously frightening, feral, and seductive, one simply can’t anticipate what sort of havoc Hedda will wreak next.

Within the two days in which “Hedda Gabler” is set, Ibsen’s dramatic arch concentrates on the peak moment of change in Jorgen and Hedda’s lives. When Jorgen tells Hedda, “One should never allow oneself to traffic in dreams,” we see that the Tesman’s world is one where the dreams are on the brink of combustion. There’s the unfinished and very expensive house, mortgaged beyond reason. There’s Hedda’s former lover’s brilliant work, still in manuscript form -- a single draft that’s both incredibly valuable and vulnerable, threatening Jorgen’s employment prospects. And then there’s 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 husband’s aunt, Miss Juliane Tesman (Sharon Lockwood). But none of these actions change her circumstances.

Hedda isn’t 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 Augeson’s 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 house’s 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 Hedda’s 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 1970’s Coty’s commercial.

Though these details are subtle and never jarring, they suggest Hedda’s 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