Review: Studio's Stylishly Unsettled HEDDA GABLER

A storm is descending upon Washington and in the eye of it is Julia Coffey as the titular anti-heroine in Studio Theatre's unsettled Hedda Gabler. Coffey ascends the mantle of the theater's most narcissistic character, only to be underserved by a production of Henrik Ibsen's 1890 classic which seems to be misplaced in the Mad Men era.

Back from a six-month long honeymoon, Hedda (Coffey) returns home to her dream house dissatisfied with many things, including husband Yorge (Avery Clark) and their relationship. When family-friend Judge Brack (Michael Early) recommends that she busy herself, the challenge takes on greater meaning when she sets out to destroy a potential threat to Yorge's expected professorial appointment, which also happens to threaten her expensive way of life as well.

Coffey is mesmerizing. Her Hedda is a potent cocktail of narcissism, disillusionment, jealously and manipulation. Despite returning from the honeymoon of her dreams to the house of her dreams, isolation and boredom take hold. With them are a plethora of excuses and moods. Coffey drives this production with the best of nuanced performances - one that is perfectly measured and explosive at the right times. Even when gazing out of the drawing room window, her magnetism is such that the audience never takes their eyes off her.

She's underserved by a myriad of inherent factions that leave the production in a precarious state. The play's setting and design along with Rowe's prose all seem to be fighting against themselves. This Hedda Gabler isn't sure if it wants to be elegant and contemporary or remain in the past. It chooses to settle somewhere in the middle.

Upon first glance, it would appear that the play's late-1890s setting has been updated to modern times. Luciana Stecconi's post-modern living room makes that a safe assumption. It is chic and stylish with a state of melancholy similar to the type that filled Mad Men's seven seasons. Unspoken angst lies just beneath the polish veneer of the black granite floors, grey sectional sofa and crystal tumblers on the bar. It is not until mid-way through Act One, when the social mores of the play's setting are mentioned, such as ladies needing an escort and the presence of a chaperone, are we left in confusion at the disconnect between the character and the physical world they inhabit.

Adding to that is Murell Horton's elegant and seductive costume design. While lush, especially Hedda's silk red party dress, the design seems to clash with the conservative social practices of the play's time period. Another unexpected consequence is that it has Coffey resembling a cross between January Jones' Betty Draper and Cate Blanchett's character in Blue Jasmine, with progressive outfits that don't match the lifestyle of the character.

Matt Torney's intimate and aggressive direction attempts, somewhat successfully, to marry the difference of styles. Rowe's adaption also seems more revelatory then we're used to with Hedda Gabler. In this production, the reasons for her malaise seem less shrouded in secrecy. There are moments when we're left wondering if Rowe is trying to make a point by emphasizing Hedda's materialistic needs. Still, when Coffey is ready to explode, Torney lets her go full-throttle and the result is wildly shocking and gripping.

Nevertheless, it's always a pleasure watching a character who is such a master manipulator, conniving and with a well-developed neuroses as is Coffey's Hedda. She's aided by a terrific cast led by Early's brooding, emotionally menacing Judge Brack. They have a connection that seems to be filling the void of any father issues Hedda might be feeling.

Oblivious to this is Clark's do-gooding, slightly ambitious Jorge. He's the man you'd want your daughter to marry - a rising academic, family man and eager to give his new wife anything she pleases. All this is not enough for Hedda. His optimism is equally matched by her masked skepticism making it an intriguing match.

Their relationship takes a complicated turn when Shane Kenyon's brilliantly troubled Eljert Lovborg appears. Initially, he appears as Yorge's chief competitor for a professorial appointment, until we learn that there is much more to him, including a history with Hedda. Kenyon's performance has a poetic quality in how his character unravels underneath the weight of remorse and expectation that the world has placed upon him.

Hoping to save Eljert is Kimiye Corwin's Thea Elvsetad, Yorge's lover and academic partner. She sees Hedda clearly and knows what she's capable of, having grown-up with her. The fear in Corwin's Thea is palpable and adds great dimension to her scenes with Coffey.

Rounding out the cast is Kimberly Schraf as Julle Tesman, Yorge's benevolent aunt. Rosemary Regan portrays the family's timid maid Berte whose job takes on a new complication with Hedda as her mistress.

While elements of this production may clash like mis-matched window shutters in a storm, Ibsen's play still induces a type of awe-struck response akin to the most intense thunder and lightning show. Studio has presented another facet, to perhaps, one of the theaters most multifaceted characters.

Runtime is Two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

Warning: Adult language and violence is featured in this production

Hedda Gabler runs thru June 19th at Studio Theatre - 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets please call (202) 332-3300 or click here.

Photo: Avery Clark and Julia Coffey. Credit: Allie Dearie.


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