BWW Review: An Incredible Emily Belvo Appears in Jobsite Theater's Production of Lucy Kirkwood's HEDDA - Based on Henrik Ibsen's HEDDA GABLER
When I first heard that Jobsite Theater was doing an updated reimagining of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, simply called HEDDA by Lucy Kirkwood, I had mixed thoughts. Since most people haven't seen the original, I wondered, then perhaps the company should just do the Ibsen classic and leave the Kirkwood reimagining for another day. I had hoped that it wouldn't be like Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho recreation with Anne Heche in the Janet Leigh role--one of the worst films of the past 25 years, an unnecessary fiddling with Hitchock's classic among classics. Is that the miserable fate in store for this particular HEDDA?
No need to worry.
Having seen Hedda Gabler in various incarnations before, including one California production years ago where "Orinoco Flow" audibly flowed throughout it (I nicknamed that one Enya Gabler), I welcomed this HEDDA with opened arms. I like the idea of one of the greatest female characters of all time being redressed and reexamined by a woman playwright, finally seen from a female point of view. My only concern turned out to be a general one: What about those people who have never seen nor heard of Ibsen's Hedda Gaber? Do they know that this is only based on the classic? Would it behoove them to read or see the original in some form before jumping into this different version? Or does it matter, and is it ultimately okay for this to be their first foray into the world of Hedda Gabler?
Interestingly enough, although Kirkwood's modern-day HEDDA will never eclipse the original Ibsen work in quality, there were moments in this production that I actually preferred: The thumb drive hanging on a lanyard and later becoming a key prop--a wonderfully theatrical updating to a boring old manuscript in Ibsen Land. And the devouring of the manuscript on that thumb drive in Act 2--yes, the literal devouring of it here--is such a better choice than the boring burning in the original. They call the "killing" of the manuscript a form of infanticide in the show; but the devouring of it takes it to an all new level, one that can be compared to mythic giants-Saturn swallowing his young; Caligula in I Claudius eating his own unborn child in an insane instant of paranoia.
The acting in HEDDA is all around quite good, but Emily Belvo takes it to an entirely new place. This is beyond a star turn; this is a thank-God-she's-in-Tampa-so-we-can-experience-this kind of turn. Because Ms. Belvo has the ability to do anything and go anywhere with her talent. Her work here is beyond extraordinary. It's haunting, mysterious--I kept trying to figure out why Hedda was making the choices she was, but I also understood that part of the power of the play is that mystery. You can sense Hedda's disdain for normal married life; you understand her lack of love for the world itself after her father's passing. But maybe her sociopathy, if that's what it is, preceded that. She's trapped in a bad marriage and possible motherhood, a normal world awaiting a person who is all but normal.
In her blonde wig, Belvo looks like Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, and I found that comparison fitting. Dunaway's Bonnie Parker also wanted out of a drab, barefoot-in-the-kitchen future, so she chose bank robbery as a way out. Hedda doesn't have it so easy. There's nothing that can make her happy, not even the connection she feels to Eli-perhaps the only soul in the world who really gets her. She shudders whenever her clueless husband embraces her, and even hesitates before a simple kiss with him. She's almost like a walking ghost, hanging around the walls, so often disassociated from the action. There's one brief instance where she is all by herself onstage, hovering by a wall, just standing there, and that explains it all--this world of hers is not of her choosing and she has no means of escape. She's just another piece of furniture in a house she does not want to be in.
As her husband, George, Christopher Marshall once again proves why he is a gift to our area. He's so natural, so in the moment. He's a likable guy, so real, but he doesn't sense his wife's dissatisfaction. He's smart, in love, but clueless to the reality around him-that his wife does not share his enthusiasm. He's writing about "robotic ants"--a perfect summation of the world's view of women, a world in which Hedda wants to break free.
As Eli, Joseph Michael-Kenneth resembles a "Helter Skelter" Era Charles Manson. He's so full of passion and meaning, and you understand his connection with Hedda, but it's all too late. Eli is a true artist, even calling his writing his "baby," and when his life's work (left on a thumb drive that has not been backed up anywhere) suddenly goes missing, he loses it emotionally. The make-up of his beaten face in Act 2 is sensational; it's so effective, and Michael-Kenneth is sometimes so intense, that I wonder if anyone may think it's not make-up and that the actor actually did it to himself, punching his face Fight Club style before walking onstage.
Bespectacled Jon VanMiddlesworth, as the vile Toby, looks like another Toby--Toby Jones--mixed with Charlie the Starkist Tuna. He's the true villain of the piece, a smiling ass who will use any information to get what he wants. Power. He's so at ease with himself that he will go overboard sometimes, at one point overdoing the gesturing of a sex joke when the verbal portion of the joke was already enough. He pushes the obvious, as the character would. It's not subtle, but it works.
As Thea, the talented Katie Miesner captures all of the character's idiosyncrasies-the nervous twitches, the social bumbling, the wonderfully annoying voice; she's a grown-up girl-child. You can see how she is the perfect foil for the arachnid Hedda. We find ourselves protective of her, creeped out as Hedda starts methodically pulling strands of her hair at one point. Miesner's Thea looks like a dumbed down version of Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory. She's obviously in a different social class than Hedda and far more passive, more feminine. She's also reactive and, as Eli puts it, "too stupid to understand." At the end we finally get an idea of what George sees in her romantically, when the two of them are flirty while mulling over her notes that can save a lost manuscript. We realize that she's actually the perfect wife for the George's of the world, not the head-strong Hedda. Thea represents a woman, more Fifties housewife sensibility than current, who needs someone to take care of her, unlike Hedda who seems lost and bored in a world where she just wants to call her own shots.
Katrina Stevenson rounds out the cast as Julia. She's quite strong and so interesting that you wish to see even more of her character.
I love that the actors, especially Ms. Belvo and Mr. Marshall, take their time. There are wonderful patches of silence in HEDDA, when the characters are stuck in their particular circumstances, sitting and pondering with no one else on stage. Ms. Belvo is expert when she has nothing to do but listen. She is always in the moment, always taking charge in her brain, all without saying a word. And no actress has eyes as expressive. Make no mistake, this is not a head rush of a play. We never watch things burn (literally and figuratively); the whole work seems to smolder like a lit but unsmoked cigarette. If you are looking for the car chase scene in The French Connection or the Battle of Normandy from Saving Private Ryan, then HEDDA will not be for your brand of ADHD entertainment. It's a foot-journey instead of pod race. Sometimes the pace in the exposition-filled Act 1 teeters on the tedious, but it never fully acquiesces.
Sometimes the show is so real, the acting so intimate, it's like being in a restaurant and eavesdropping on a nearby table. The show is not for everyone, fidgety children or adults used to CGI Superhero action may not appreciate it. But Ibsen purists will get a kick out of it, comparing and contrasting the modern version from the classic.
The show has been beautifully directed by Stuart Fail, who doesn't mind the power of silence and slowness. Scott Cooper's set of a fixer-upper abode, aided strongly by Jo Averill-Snell's lighting, works quite well, with lots of room for the actors to play.
Jeremy Douglass' sound design, where background music of doom pops in and out, certainly chills. And the sound goes crazy at the end, with the Smiths playing at full volume. The show goes off the rails her, the music deafening, and then a noise--a single sound that changes everything. It's powerful stuff, and my heart was accelerating at the end, all to the ultra-loud sounds of the Smiths. Which reminds me of another strength of the updating: Without it, would we have the Smiths music blaring during the tragic ending? This choice certainly beats the hell out of Enya.
Jobsite's HEDDA plays in the Shimberg at the Straz Center for the Arts until June 2.