The Theater Project may have moved from Cranford to Maplewood, but they haven't lost their penchant for choosing and skillfully producing off-beat plays that make one really think. In fact, their motto is Think Theater. This time, as the inaugural production of the 2012-2013 season, they have chosen The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler by Jeff Whitty (who penned Avenue Q), a mishmash of characters and off-the-wall adventures that gives us a taste of just what might happen to those characters after the curtain comes down and the stage lights go out.
Written by Norwegian Henrik Ibsen in 1890, Hedda Gabler has been hailed as a classic example of realism, and its protagonist has been called "a female Hamlet." The role itself has been controversial: is Hedda an idealist fighting society, a pre-feminist or a manipulative vixen/villain? The interpretation often depends on the director and the actress playing the role. (Above: Liz Zazzi, Rasha Jay, Dennis DaPrile and Jason Gillis; Photo by Kevin Sebastian)
For those who don't know (or don't remember), the final scene of Ibsen’s play has Hedda facing the suicide of her former lover Lovborg (with the gun she provided him), her role in the destruction of his masterpiece manuscript, the plans of her husband Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted (Lovborg's collaborator) to reconstruct the book from Lovborg's notes and the dominance over her by Judge Brack who knows the truth about her role in Lovborg's death. Distraught at the turn of events she hadn't counted on, Hedda excuses herself from the group, goes into another room and shoots herself in the head.
It is at this point that Whitty begins his play. We meet Hedda after the curtain has fallen on Ibsen's play, but she's not dead; she will be resurrected in another production and another, ad infinitum. She will be eternally unhappy, trapped in the "cruel limitations of that playwright." Faced with this revolting proposition, Hedda longs to leave the Cul de Sac of Tragic Women, travel to the Furnace from which all imaginary characters emerge and rewrite her life. Egged on by child-murderer Medea, joined by Mammy, the house slave of Gone with the Wind who seeks to "no longer be a bookmark in history," and trailed by her husband Tesman, who hopes to convince her to commit suicide yet again, Hedda proclaims, "My renaissance begins," and sets out on her quest to reinvent herself.
Along the way, she runs into a bevy of characters also on a journey of self-evolution. These include The Lady in Pink (a 1970's Afro-wigged, go-go dancing character from an Ntozake Shange play), Anna Karenina, Cassandra, a black female detective from television, Hannibal Lechter, Little Orphan Annie and most humorous of all, a pair of self-hating queens from The Boys in the Band, among others. It's enough to make one's head spin!
Mark Spina's usual fluid and deft direction keeps in the air all the balls served up by this wacky play. It helps that he's cast a group of very talented pros who manage to pull it all off successfully. Liz Zazzi's brassy delivery suits Hedda's domineering drama queen personality as she browbeats everyone into letting her rewrite her life, despite what the audience wants. The role as written gets tiresome after a while Gary Glor is fine as her mousy academic husband Tesman, and Rasha Jay is splendid, morphing from the classic Mammy character into a diva and back again. Hers is the most moving performance in the play.
Rick Delaney is versatile as a host of characters, male and female. From Medea to the Godspell Jesus to the despondent Eilert Lovborg, he's always in character and very entertaining. And Jason Gillis as Patrick and Dennis DaPrile as Stephen, the flaming, in-your-face gay characters from The Boys in the Band, sashay around the stage, throwing quips back and forth, before they have the chance to reveal one of the play's themes: their (and Mammy's) representations, while stereotypes, laid the groundwork for subsequent characters to play against them and change the way the world views blacks and homosexuals. Rachelle M. Dorce as The Lady in Pink and Barbara Guidi as Cassandra add to the merriment.
All this zaniness unfolds on a nifty set designed by Thomas Rowe (complete with a grand swath of red velvet curtain appropriate to a 19th century production of Hedda Gabler), atmospheric lighting by Sam Gordon and Barbara Canace's costumes that reference various time periods and reveal character beautifully.
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler is a mind-boggling swirl of literary references, some of which the audience may not get (nor do they have to know much about Hedda Gabler, for Whitty provides enough information in the opening scene), but as a play about the theater, it telegraphs several very important themes. For one thing, what do we do about characters created long ago who we might find offensive today? What can we learn from them? What does an audience demand from dramatic personages? What role does the audience play in the "lives" of the characters on stage? Too, it's interesting that Hedda, a proto-typical feminist, was created by a man, and Mammy, a slave, is the invention of a white woman. What's up with that?
You don't have to be a student of literature or drama to enjoy The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. This polished production, performed with seriousness and skill, puts an unusual spin on the way we view fictional characters who are forever "stuck" in their stories, manipulated by their creators; perhaps the best thing is that they live again and again because the audience or reader feels empathy for them. Not a bad trade-off.
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler will be performed by The Theater Project at the Burgdorff Cultural Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood, through October 7. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. For information and tickets, call 973.763.4029 or visit www.thetheaterproject.org.