Desperately Tweaking Ibsen

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

&quotThe; Original Desperate Housewife." That's been a description of no less than three different productions of Hedda Gabler this year. Obviously, journalists and marketing types love the contrast of Norwegian reserve and prime-time lasciviousness; but just because the statement is buzzy, doesn't make it untrue. Mrs. Hedda Gabler does share a number of characteristics with the ladies from Wisteria Lane; though the television series requires four or five woman to dramatize a modern wife's neuroses, whereas Ibsen only needed one.

This complexity makes playing Hedda Gabler one of the most difficult tasks for any dramatic actress; and it also suggests why two of this year's Hedda's have been tributes rather than true revivals. The first was seen in Orange County this January. The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler was the creation of Jeff Whitty, one of the Avenue Q creators, and it tried to be a comedic sequel to Ibsen's tragedy. Sadly, Whitty's name proved to be the only thing in the theater that possessed much wit. Even worse, Whitty's concoction showed no real interest in the character of Hedda, preferring instead to use her as a sort of brand-name leading lady to interact with characters from other authors' work.

A similar smelting of poppy, postmodernism could be seen in another Hedda-inspired work. Heddatron, staged by the company that created The Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, took the novel step of staging Ibsen with a cast of robots.

I didn't get to see Heddatron unfortunately, as it closed a few days before I arrived in New York to see a more conventional Hedda Gabler, starring Cate Blanchett. Ms. Blanchett's American stage debut is the theater event of this month, as evidenced by its sold-out run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music--and prominent reviews in both the New York and Los Angeles Times.

And Blanchett does deliver a larger-than-life performance. Too bad it's not as Hedda Gabler. While the rest of the cast performs a relatively traditional take on Ibsen (notwithstanding a jargony &quotadaptation;" by Andrew Upton), Blanchett is in a world of her own. She's consistently interesting to watch--and sometimes laugh out loud funny--but instead of a desperate housewife, she seems like a spoiled imp--one who looks like she's having too much fun inflicting pain to worry about her own problems, let alone take her own life.

Some of this is a miscalculation, but much of it feels like a symptom of the complexity of the role. Blanchett's two male costars, Anthony Weigh as Tesman and Hugo Weaving (of The Matrix and Lord of the Rings fame) as Judge Brack, fare much better since their parts are more straightforward.

One is tempted to offer this same diagnosis to explain the imbalance of the Taper's new production of The Cherry Orchard, which ends its sold-out run this weekend here in Los Angeles. It stars Southern California's last notable Hedda Gabler, Annette Bening. Bening was less than a success with Ibsen at the Geffen, and here at the Taper she again underwhelms in Chekhov. Certainly, the Russian master's Ranyevskaya is not an easy part--but Bening would seem to be a perfect fit. When she makes her entrance, she radiates the grace and hauteur of Chekhov's noble grande-dame; but as the play progresses, Bening's portrayal gets hazy and the sparkle that she's brought to so many film performances is nowhere to be seen.

Like the Cherry Orchard in the title, which is bought out by the character of Lopakhin, this show is stolen by Alfred Molina with a performance so engrossing, it makes one think that Chekhov should have titled the play Uncle Yermolai.

Molina impresses, not because his part is less complex than Bening; but because he has seemingly trained his voice--and even his muscles--to be in synch with the motivations of the character. His cockney accent may sound out of place in the play's provincial Russian setting, but he makes it entirely convincing. Even more wonderful is his physicality. Whenever the topic of his proposal of marriage to a young woman he does not love is mentioned, Molina reflexively steps back--even as he tries to be polite by saying things like &quotShe;'s a very nice girl." His performance is so effortless and so engrossing, it begs the question: why not a staging of Hedda with Molina himself as the lead? The only thing more revolutionary than robots playing &quotThe; Original Desperate Housewife," would be Hedda Gabler performed by a man.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.