The conflicts within the Volkstheater’s “Hedda Gabler” are enough to induce a headache not unlike the migraine that seems to be the main force behind Hedda’s (Birgit Doll) ruinous behavior. Here’s a production both traditional and askew, with casting that is conventional as well as misguided. And while director Walter Schmidinger provides a confident production with strong visual symbolism, it unfortunately follows on the heels of last summer’s bold and successful guest production of “Hedda” by the Schaubuhne Berlin on the same stage. This younger “Hedda” is the older and weaker of the pair.
The play opens promisingly, with somber piano music and an abundance of flowers — casually piled high, casket-style, over a dining table attended by six black chairs as pallbearers, and placed with ceremonial precision in floor vases — altogether creating an ironic and subtle foreshadowing of the deaths to come.
Doll, a commanding and intense actress, offers an angry, serious Hedda, her dark hair braided down her back like some feminist postgraduate student. The admirable comic actor Toni Bohm was a predictable choice for Tesman as an older, pedantic, nervously weak husband. Thea Elvsted (Franziska Sztavjanik) is a fluttery mouse disguised as a porcelain doll. Lovborg (Jacques Breuer), young, good-looking and self-consciously poetic, lacks the substance and maturity to be convincing as a dissipated genius, but becomes an ugly and abusive bully toward the cowering Thea.
Just as the longing for something fresh in this otherwise standard interpretation looms, it is surprisingly accommodated. When Thea confesses her timid fear of Hedda, Hedda suddenly kisses her with almost rapacious seductiveness.
Fortunately for the production, undercurrents suggested by this moment are pursued no further. Instead, the play’s emotional combustion is provided by Hedda and, not Lovborg, but Judge Brack (Johannes Terne). Handsome and self-assured, the elegant judge reduces the otherwise strident Hedda to a shy schoolgirl on their first meeting, their mutual attraction ripening into a pairing of equals. How unlike Hedda’s intimate scene with Lovborg, where the inarticulate writer repeats her name in melodramatic tones, while Hedda’s “Ja?” becomes increasingly impatient.
Given Brack’s poise, his distracted wandering out of the Tesman household after Hedda’s suicide is confusing and unsatisfying, but it was the only questionable moment in his performance. Still, itbrings into question the balance of aproduction wherein Judge Brack isthe bright light of “Hedda Gabler.”