Give a hand for Hedda

Brooke Aiello leads a consummate cast in a memorable production of Ibsen’s classic “Hedda Gabler”

THEATER REVIEW

“Let me go,” Hedda Gabler says softly, almost imperceptibly.

You might in this moment think of a cranky child trying to escape the clutches of a doting elderly relative. The truth isn’t far: In this early scene in Ibsen’s famed play, Hedda’s new aunt by marriage has dropped in unannounced on the new couple the morning after Hedda and her husband return from a six-month honeymoon. So much for a bit of time and space for Hedda to get used to her new marital digs: Here’s selfless Aunt Julia, the titaness of social respectability, wrapped up in a great swath of a formal dress and wearing a brand-new hat, barging in to make sure everyone in the household knows of her smotheringly good intentions. In a moment of forced intimacy, Aunt Julia has grabbed Hedda’s hands without permission. In Hedda’s world, that’s a no-no. And it captures, early on, a sense of the entrapment that she feels as she begins this new marriage.

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Bearing arms: Brooke Aiello is outstanding as the title character in “Hedda Gabler.” Photo / The New Ensemble

Is it any wonder that the title character in “Hedda Gabler” has a snippy side?

Sometimes, as an audience member, I find my connection to a character forged in one small and meaningful instant. In this case, Brooke Aiello’s outstanding portrayal of Hedda in a not-to-miss production by The New Ensemble clicked with me early on. It came not in a big, showy, emotional moment — Aiello gives us restraint and a slow burn throughout this deftly directed show — but in one of nuance and shading. It’s when I found myself starting to bond with Hedda. Despite her obvious faults, which led some critics at the 1891 premiere to call her a monster, I started to fall for her as a character, or at least grant her a great deal of goodwill. Yes, Hedda is spoiled, entitled, controlling, mentally unstable and does a truly awful thing to someone she used to be close to, but there is something about the way in which Aiello plaintively wriggles out of Aunt Julia’s embrace that made me a silent partner in her journey.

I could go on and on about Aiello’s strong work as Hedda in this famed theatrical role: the way she attempts to corral her annoyed facial expression into a mask of strained politeness, even when she’s truly ticked off; the way she slumps into Victorian era chairs when she’s in the background observing the follies of others; the way she can add a hint of salaciousness, like a few drops of food coloring, to a conversation without breaking any social rules.

But I also don’t want to make this “Hedda Gabler” review just about the title character. The production is a wonderful ensemble piece, crafted with care by director Heather Parish, featuring one of the strongest casts you’ll see in a Fresno theatrical event.

Did I already mention the “don’t miss it” part?

The production is a wonderful ensemble piece, crafted with care by director Heather Parish, featuring one of the strongest casts you’ll see in a Fresno theatrical event.

In the cage created by Ibsen for his dear Hedda, her new husband is George Tesman, played by Chris Carsten with a fascinating mix of befuddlement, endearment and entitlement. She had high hopes for him in terms of his profession and income, in hopes of being able to sustain the kind of life she had as the daughter of a general, but six months on extended honeymoon have probably convinced her of his emphatic mediocrity. (As an academic hoping for a full professorship, his great talent lies in “collating and collecting” the work of others, not original thinking.) Carsten is in the upper age range of being able to pull off Tesman, but there’s something about his puppyish, higher-pitched approach to the role that makes it work.

Ted Nunes, in the most accomplished stage role I’ve seen him perform, is quite good as Eilert Lovborg, a former flame of Hedda’s and a potential academic rival of her new husband. Will Eilert’s new book threaten George’s chance at the academic position he wants? And will Eilert’s alcoholism be something that George and Hedda can exploit?

Elizabeth Fiester, as the fussy and put-upon Aunt Julia, is pitch-perfect in her first-act encounters with Hedda and George.

Brad Myers is a special treat as Judge Brack, whom Ibsen at one point describes as having a “goatish little smile.” He’s the influential family friend who hopes to establish a comfortable “triangle” of a relationship with Hedda and George. Myers, who like Carsten is a professional actor (as well as a Fresno State theater professor), has a grand time finding the leer and snivel in the judge’s character. Brack is the smug personification of masculine privilege, from his stag drinking parties to his huffy institutional superiority over Hedda, and it’s quite something that she manages to upset his own sense of how the world should be.

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Maverick: Casey Ballard shines as Thea Elvsted in “Hedda Gabler.” Photo / The New Ensemble

I had gone into the show expecting great things from Myers and Carsten, especially, but I was unprepared for how impressed I’d be by Casey Ballard, who plays another pivotal role: that of Thea Elvsted, a woman in an unhappy marriage who has left her husband for the brilliant but disturbed Eilert. Again, this is Ballard’s finest work I’ve seen from her. Her subdued performance suggests a woman battered by life who withdraws into herself out of a sense of sheer terror; if she flouts society’s rules by abandoning her marriage, how will she survive without a man? She makes a strong and effective balance for Aiello’s dominant character. They are two examples of women fighting back against a man’s world: one hoping to take charge of her life by sheer force of personality, the other crouching back into a defensive-if-demure posture. Together they make quite a combination.

This “Hedda Gabler” is very much an Aiello dream project, and she’s responsible for the design of the show as well. Her evocative set, framed with draperies, rugs and scattered with period furniture, is quite simple but effective in the makeshift performance space set up in Fresno Pacific University’s Ashley Auditorium. And her period costumes are a highlight: formal, yes, but more stuffy than ravishing, capturing the feel of daily routine.

I’m fascinated by the idea of human touch in this play, and not just the usual romantic stuff. Time and again, hands play an important role. Hedda, for all her affront at Aunt Julia’s unsolicited touch, is quite a proponent of the practice, strategically stroking other people’s palms in variations of obsequiousness, flirtation, menace and sometimes even affection. The result is a sort of tactile connection between the audience and characters; you’re close enough to see Aiello’s thumbnail push into the other hand, reddening it slightly, making an impact. Again, it’s all part of a carefully wrought, subtle approach to direction that helps to heighten the text.

In the end, Hedda’s “handling” of the people in her life is, like hopes and dreams often are, at cross-purposes and even contradictory. She wants freedom yet also desires power over the destinies of others. “Let me go,” she says, even as she wants to do the opposite to people around her. Thanks to Aiello and her passion for this woman, inconsistencies and all, she’s given us all a gift: the chance to see a great classic in a production that more than does it justice.


Show info

“Hedda Gabler,” 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20, Ashley Auditorium in McDonald Hall at Fresno Pacific University, 1717 S. Chestnut Ave. $15 ($5 Saturday matinee).


Related story

Hot, hot Norwegian repression
A freewheeling discussion between star Brooke Aiello and director Heather Parish of “Hedda Gabler”? Skål! We’ll drink to that.


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Author: Donald Munro

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

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