Hot, hot Norwegian repression

A freewheeling discussion between star Brooke Aiello and director Heather Parish of “Hedda Gabler”? We’ll drink to that

THEATER PREVIEW

It’s Hedda Gabler’s birthday morning, and she’s kicking off the celebration with a mimosa. The thing is, I’m so clueless about alcohol in the a.m. that I get to the end of a 90-minute breakfast interview at Irene’s Cafe before I realize that the grand dame of 19th century theatrical realism sitting across from me isn’t drinking straight orange juice. Champagne before 9 a.m.? I’m shocked. Aghast. This is no mere woman … this is a monster!

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Past fling: Ted Nunes is Eilert and Brooke Aiello is Hedda in “Hedda Gabler.” Photo / The New Ensemble

Actually, Brooke Aiello — one of Fresno’s most passionate acting talents — is nursing not one but four beverages as we talk about The New Ensemble’s new production of “Hedda Gabler.” There’s coffee from Irene’s, black tea from Starbucks, a glass of ice water and her tall, frothy birthday drink. There’s a method to all this, even though I don’t quite understand it: something about sweet followed by sweeter. Or is it sweet followed by bitter? It doesn’t matter; she has a process in mind. This is someone who has definite views on many things, including the liquids in her life.

“I’m going to be very well hydrated today,” she happily tells me.

The “monster” reference is authentic, at least in terms of the initial reaction to Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play, one of the groundbreaking masterpieces of 19th century realism. More than one pundit declared Hedda Gabler as inhuman. When the play first opened, audiences and critics were stunned to confront the complicated and self-determined title character. The list is long of all the things that Hedda Gabler is not: She isn’t a gentle heroine, saucy servant, besotted love interest, stuffy spinstress, mysterious cipher nor “manic pixie muse,” as Aiello puts it. Hedda is complicated, headstrong, sexual and selfish. She is — gasp — quite like a man. It’s a great big, brute of a role of the kind that male actors have relished and lusted after in the theater for hundreds of years.

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Newlyweds: Hedda (Brooke Aiello) and Tesman (Chris Carsten) in a scene from “Hedda Gabler.” Photo / The New Ensemble

“I’m going to tell you what I love the most about her and spending time with her,” Aiello says, stirring her coffee with real milk, not the fake stuff. “She is such a fighter. She fights for herself from the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to sleep. I really admire that about her. I think that’s why I like spending time with her so much. I could rehearse Hedda Gabler every day until I die and I would be happy.”

We’re sitting waiting for our food with Heather Parish, the show’s director and a longtime friend of Aiello’s. (This is the eighth show they’ve done together in the last 10 years, including an impressive production of “Hamlet” in which Aiello played the title role.) Parish usually wears the producer’s hat for New Ensemble productions, but this is Aiello’s project. She stars in it, designed the costumes, built the sets. (And put up the money.)

Hedda has been on her mind for a couple of years, and she didn’t want to wait too long. Part of it, frankly, is an age thing.

“She told me, ‘I have to do it this year or I’m not doing it at all,’” Parish says.

“It’s very important to me that she be fecund still, so there’s that,” Aiello replies matter-of-factly.

Parish laughs. “That’s textual,” she says. “There’s no getting around that.”

“Hedda” attracted Parish as director because it’s the type of play that doesn’t have easy answers. The plot turns turbulent by the end, but the motivations aren’t necessarily clear.

“I hope people have cocktails after and discuss it,” Aiello says. “I hope people see the same performance and have lots of different ideas about why people do what they did, what made them tick.”

Parish likes that idea. “Yes, you can go and have cocktails after and argue. If they can’t think of one reason why Hedda does what she does, we didn’t do our job. If they can think of four reasons, we super did our job.”

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So just who is Hedda Gabler, and what does she do in her play? As the action opens in 1890s Norway, Hedda has just returned from a six-month honeymoon with her new husband, George Tesman (played by Chris Carsten), a competent and amiable academic, and they’re settling into their new home. As the daughter of a general, she’s considered a minor aristocrat, and a rather spoiled one at that. She’s 30 or so years old, which means she waited a long time to get married, very nearly straying into spinster territory. Does she love Tesman? Probably not. Marriage was expected. And societal expectations are a big part of Hedda’s world.

“She thought when she got married that she would get more freedom, that her life was going to break open,” Aiello says. “But all she found was a different cage.”

Hedda also discovers that her new husband is not likely to be a brilliant scholar nor a financial powerhouse in the future, which sets her on edge. She’s accustomed to a certain kind of life. As a wife, she’s now inextricably linked to her husband’s prospects. And that can be sobering.

“She thought when she got married that she would get more freedom, that her life was going to break open. But all she found was a different cage.”

There are complications, of course. Her husband’s academic rival, Eilert Lovborg (Ted Nunes) used to be in love with Hedda. He pops back into her life, along with one of her former classmates, Thea Elvsted (Casey Ballard), who has bucked convention and left her husband for him. Suddenly Eilert — who has written a well-received book — seems to have better prospects than Hedda would have imagined. The “costume drama” that ensues is smudged with the darker side of human nature: jealousy, betrayal, blackmail, anger, pettiness, violence.

A week ago on Facebook when promoting the show, Parish described it as a “classic tale of hot, hot Norwegian repression.” I joked in an online comment that I was going to steal that for a headline. I decided not to joke. I love it.

It isn’t just the big themes that make Hedda a complicated character.

At one point, early in the play, Hedda makes fun of a hat worn by Aunt Julie (Elizabeth Fiester), who raised George since childhood. Something about the way his aunt dotes upon him sparks a coldness in Hedda toward her new in-law.

I ask Aiello about the moment: “Is Hedda mean?”

A long pause.

“Um, not on purpose,” she finally replies, flashing a sly grin. “She’s not trying to be mean. She’s trying to assert herself over where she lives. She’s trying to have some power over her destiny in her home and life. She should have maybe done it in a nicer way.”

In other words, Hedda is not one-dimensional. You can’t put her in a simple box.

Says Parish: “There are a lot of contrasts in her that are enjoyable to watch. There are times when she absolutely frustrates the hell out of you, as an audience member. And then she’ll turn around and do something very charming, or show some vulnerability. You realize, ‘Wait a minute, I’m feeling bad for this person who is not always the most upright and moral of individuals.’ She’s an antihero.”

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Actors practically quiver when they hear the name Ibsen. Aiello is still amazed at the cast she was able to attract for the show. Carsten has a long professional career, particularly in nationally touring musicals. Fiester is a longtime Good Company Players directing and acting veteran. Ballard and Nunes have had recent GCP starring roles. (Kathie Mollica, a theater newcomer, rounds out the players as Berte, the maid.)

“I just cannot emphasize enough the caliber of this cast,” Parish says.

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Rivals? Hedda (Brooke Aiello) and Thea (Casey Ballard) compare notes in “Hedda Gabler.” Photo / The New Ensemble

Along with Carsten, perhaps the greatest casting coup is Fresno State’s Brad Myers, who plays Judge Brack, an enigmatic “family friend” of Hedda’s. Myers has done Ibsen before — I saw him in “A Doll’s House” in a professional Shakespeare Santa Cruz production — and brings that experience to the role. But for the rest, acting in an Ibsen play is a rare opportunity.

As for attracting big audiences, well, that can be a little tougher. There is most definitely a market for independent, thoughtful classic theater in Fresno, Parish says. It’s just a question of reaching those people. There’s a whole subset of fans, after all, who get pretty excited about the idea of watching people dressed to the Victorian-era nines get all emotional and bothered.

Still, Ibsen doesn’t have quite the name recognition and drawing power of, say, Shakespeare. Aiello, as producer, was helped out by an offer of free space from Fresno Pacific University, where the production is being staged in McDonald Hall’s Ashley Auditorium. (The university is not affiliated with the production beyond providing the venue, but has really gone above and beyond the call of duty when the original black-box theater space in which the show was scheduled had its air conditioning conk out.) That made the project viable.

“Nobody makes money on Ibsen,” Aiello says. “Who is going to produce it? You have to be willing to lose all your money.”

It helps when the role is on your bucket list. It also helps when you can find the bleak whimsy in life.

“Also, and I hesitate to say this, but I’m going to anyway, I feel that within a couple of years, everybody is going to be subsidence farming because it’s the end of days,” she says. “And we’ll be running from zombies. There will be no time to do ‘Hedda.’ ”

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To celebrate her birthday, which fell rather inopportunely on the Monday of tech week, Aiello is taking the day off from work. But she’s still going to be working: sewing costumes, running errands, doing the things that producers do.

She’s wanted to play this role for so long that even now, in the midst of the pre-opening frenzy, she’s already getting emotional when she thinks about letting Hedda go.

“It’s only two weekends,” she says, sadly, of the play’s limited run. We’ve finished eating by now, and the mimosa — which in the hierarchy of Aiello’s unified theory of breakfast beverages has reached its moment of prominence — is now deigned to be consumed.

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Academic husband: Chris Carsten plays George Tesman in “Hedda Gabler.” Photo / The New Ensemble

There’s a lot of depth and volatility to be found in Hedda’s character, no matter who’s playing her. The question for many observers over the years: Is she mentally ill?

Parish cautions: “I don’t have a degree (in psychology), I don’t have any way of saying. But I do think that if it were today, there would be a lot more resources for Hedda to both understand who she is in society and to get help to be herself.”

Aiello agrees.

“I would say she would definitely be on an anti-depressant or something if she were alive today. But that’s something you can debate: She was raised in a bubble of privilege. Suddenly she found herself in a different situation. So some people would argue it’s her upbringing. I’m not pulling out the DSM (aka DSM IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and finding “bipolar” and playing that at all. I hope, and Heather is helping me, that I am just playing the text. And if there are things that look like mental illness in there, it’s just the idea that mental illness has been with us forever.”

Parish sees a play like “Hedda Gabler” as a safe way to experience some pretty heavy issues without a lot of personal investment.

“You get to leave and have a cocktail and talk about it afterward instead of have to deal with the fallout,” she says. “That’s what this type of drama can be for: These are people that can still exist in our world, and if you really stop to think about it, probably do.”

Aiello, who admits she has the tiniest amount of a buzz going on — and why not, it’s her birthday! — makes a dramatic interruption.

“I want to pause here to say we’ve mentioned people having cocktails a lot. I think we might have a misapprehension about what happens after a play,” she says.

“It’s because that’s what we do,” Parish says, laughing. “We go have cocktails after a show and talk about it.”

“I just want to say cocktails, French fries, it doesn’t matter what,” Aiello responds.

“I don’t care if it’s at Veni Vidi Vici or Denny’s,” Parish says. “Whatever works.”

Maybe even Ibsen would drink to that.


Show info

“Hedda Gabler,” opens 8 p.m Friday, Aug. 11, Ashley Auditorium in McDonald Hall at Fresno Pacific University, 1717 S. Chestnut Ave. Continues through Aug. 20. $15.


Win tickets to ‘Hedda Gabler’

The Munro Review is giving away a pair of tickets to any performance except opening night. The show runs Friday, Aug. 11, through Sunday, Aug. 20. continues through Aug. 20.

To enter, leave a comment on this post answering this question: What’s your favorite costume drama? (If you’re stumped, just answer “Hedda Gabler.” Not only does Aiello star in the title role, she’s also the costume designer.)

We’ll pick a winner at random. Deadline to enter is 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 12. You’ll get to select a performance day and time and pick your tickets up at the box office.


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

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