Freya Films' production of Henrik Ibsen's classic play about the renunciation of love and the price women in the late 18th century had to pay for freedom provides Danish actress Dina Rosenmeier with a fiery vehicle for the barely restrained eruptions of her exotic beauty and erotic charisma.
Crowned by a regal presence, Rosenmeier's performance makes certain that her Hedda Gabler commands the stage throughout, constantly waiting for ignition.
From the audience's first glimpse of her, lying on a sofa, reading in Swedish in her husky voice, she provokes an unrelenting crescendo of emotional intensity. Her concept is reflected in both an increasingly savage reading of the lines, occasionally (and impulsively, it seems) read in Swedish to give extra flavor to the part, and in the mounting severity of her costumes. She begins wearing a plush dressing gown of sumptuous violet, and ends dressed in a dominatrix's outfit of tightly laced corset, red gloves and black stiletto boots.
The cast is well put together, beginning with Deborah Van Valkenburg as the meddling, petty bourgeois Aunt Julia, who provides a strong setup for Hedda’s first formal entrance, and Ellen Gerstein as the maid, who supplies a believably confused presence further symbolizing the oppressive nature of the household in which Hedda lives.
The tall and handsome Blake Robbins, as the husband Jorgen Tesman, is an admirable physical foil for Rosenmeier. Topped off with marvelous touches like a lime-green bow tie or paisley vest that reveal Tesman's passive nature, Robbins occasionally goes to excessive lengths to be blindly, block-headedly uncomprehending of the turmoil swirling around him. Dressed in an ill-fitting suit, Grainger Hines as Judge Brack uses questionable good taste in deciding against twirling a figurative mustache in savoring Hedda’s predicament; in fact, only at the very end does he melodramatically lick his lips at the thought of the delectable morsel he expects to be gobbling up.
As the star-crossed lovers caught in Hedda's sights, John Livingston and Gillian Brashear show moments of brilliant energy (she continually recovering giddily from being caught frozen like a deer in headlights; he bursting out in laughter as he sees ever more clearly the abyss of his impending doom). On the whole, however, they seem to have wandered in from another production.
Of course, in the Land of Ibsen, where characters marked by antic innocence and midnight gloom reveal themselves not by liberating flights of Freudian fancy but by tightening the screws of their existing repression even tighter, the more incongruities there are the better.
Paraphrasing Tolstoy's comment in his novel about another very strong and equally ill-fated woman, Anna Karenina, every unhappy Ibsen family is unhappy in its own way. And with Dina Rosenmeier leading the way, the unhappiness is often full of cruel poetry and savage power.
VENUE: Odyssey Theatre, West Los Angeles (Through May 25)
Cast: Dina Rosenmeier, Blake Robbins, John Livingston.
PLAYWRIGHT: Henrik Ibsen.
DIRECTORS: Charles Otte, Rick Pagano.
PRODUCER: Toni Wells-Roth.
COSTUME DESIGNER: Christina Wright.