Saturday, June 16, 2018

HEDDA GABLER • Stray Dog Theatre

Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play, adapted here by Jon Robin Baitz, introduced what would become an icon of dramatic literature. During the course of the play, Hedda Gabler (an outstanding Nicole Angeli) tries to fracture the lives of everyone around her, resulting in her own undoing -- all in a matter of a couple of days. Her cruelty is driven by boredom and a lack of purpose or agency near the turn of the twentieth century. She’s a control freak with nothing to control.

Hedda Tesman (Nicole Angeli).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Back from an extended honeymoon with her husband, Jørgen Tesman (Ben Ritchie), the prospect of making a home in the spacious villa she doesn’t want, starting a marriage to a man who loves her but whose study of medieval handicrafts bores her to tears, and anticipating with horror the prospect that she may be pregnant, all conspire to drive Hedda to the brink. With no chance of authority over anything on the horizon, she sees an opportunity for disruption when she learns that an old flame is back in town. Ejlert Løvborg (Stephen Peirick) is a renegade to polite society -- a recovering alcoholic trying to turn his life around. He’s just published a book on Western civilization that’s made quite a splash, and is in competition for a professorship that Jørgen has been all but promised -- a development that brings a devious smile to Hedda’s lips.

Thea (Rachel Hanks), another old school friend, is concerned that Ejlert might be led back down a path of debauchery now that he’s back in the city. Thea’s taken more than a casual interest in him as of late -- even helping him with a sequel to his book. Thea’s leaving a loveless marriage to have an affair is another source of annoyance to Hedda, who fears scandal and is unable to wield any power in her own life. Jørgen’s friend, Judge Brack (John Reidy), is about the only person Hedda sees as an intellectual equal. He’s influential and slippery, not afraid to use his power, and shares Hedda’s penchant for mischief, enjoying a bit of sharp banter with her when the chance arises.

Jørgen Tesman (Ben Ritchie)
and Hedda Tesman (Nicole Angeli).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Things culminate on the night of Jørgen’s delayed stag party, with Hedda’s realization that despite her best efforts, the fates she wants to swing are out of her reach, including her own, leaving her more despondent than before.

Thanks to director Gary F. Bell and Angeli, there’s more under the surface of Hedda’s insults and slights. You can glimpse little insecurities and an exasperation that give Hedda undertones of a more desperate nature -- without which might render any other performance more comic than hopeless. The glee that flashes across Angeli’s face when she sees an opening for malevolence is crooked and fascinating. Ritchie speaks his lines as if they’re occurring to him for the first time as Hedda’s docile, academic husband, Jørgen. A truly kind man, he finds himself envious of Ejlert’s talent, but selfless enough to help put the pieces back together once his manuscript to the sequel is destroyed. Reidy’s Judge Brack is charming but shady. He enjoys his clout and never passes up the chance to try and blackmail his way into a more intimate relationship with Hedda. Peirick’s Ejlert seems genuinely in love with Thea and earnest about having a crack at respectable society, but vulnerable to Hedda’s taunts to start drinking again, setting him on a dark course. Hanks is more than just a simple foil for Hedda as Thea. She’s faced with similar restrictions, but she’s a gentle woman who doesn’t play games, yet has the balls to find happiness and purpose. Jan Niehoff and Suzanne Greenwald also turn in hardy performances as Aunt Juliana Tesman and Berte, the Tesman’s maid.

Ejlert Løvborg (Stephen Peirick), Thea Elvsted (Rachel Hanks),
Jørgen Tesman (Ben Ritchie), Judge Brack (John Reidy)
and Hedda Tesman (Nicole Angeli).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Stray Dog brings back most of the cast of its production of A Doll’s House from last year, another Ibsen play about a woman trapped within the restrictions of the Victorian era. Here, the cast outdoes itself delivering indelible performances of a notable work. It’s at Tower Grove Abbey until the 23rd.


Written by Henrik Ibsen, adaptated by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through June 23 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, additional performance 2pm Sunday, June 17

Judge Brack (John Reidy), Jørgen Tesman (Ben Ritchie)
and Hedda Tesman (Nicole Angeli).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Hedda Tesman: Nicole Angeli
Berte: Suzanne Greenwald
Thea Elvsted: Rachel Hanks
Juliana Tesman: Jan Niehoff
Ejlert Løvborg: Stephen Peirick
Judge Brack: John Reidy
Jørgen Tesman: Ben Ritchie

Associate Artistic Director: Justin Been
Artistic Director: Gary F. Bell
Scenic Designer/Hair and Makeup Designer: Miles Bledsoe
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Costume Designer: Amy Hopkins

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