Classic drama reinvented with lesbian twist

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The Mauckingbird Theatre Company continues its mission to present professional gay-themed theater while also exploring classic literature with its production of “Hedda Gabler.

After the success of the company’s 2008 season, which featured all-male versions of “The Misanthrope” and Shakespeare’s “R & J” (“Romeo and Juliet”), Mauckingbird is staging Henrik Ibsen’s classic play as a lesbian drama based on an adaptation written by out actor, director and playwright Caroline Kava.

Kava, who currently teaches drama at North Carolina School for the Arts, said she came upon the idea for her adaptation years ago out of necessity.

“My reason for approaching the text was that I was teaching at Barnard [College],” she said. “We were studying Ibsen and the class was all women, of course. I was thinking what a pity it was that there aren’t more women’s parts in ‘Hedda Gabler’ because it was a great play. I wondered if we could do this. I tried it out in a scene and it worked really well. It worked really well there. I think it’s very, very true, the danger of the relationship where Hedda is so fearful of scandal. It’s much more identifiable and felt.”

The plot for Maukingbird’s production sticks closely to Ibsen’s original vision: Rising scholar George Tesman (played by Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Dito Van Reigersberg) has just married the beautiful and much-desired Hedda Gabler. Their idyllic lives are turned upside-down by the unexpected return of Eilert Lovborg, Tesman’s rival and, as it turns out, Hedda’s true love.

The twist here is that Lovborg is a woman.

Hedda watches with envy as Lovborg lives with abandon, dressing in men’s clothes and openly seeing other women. Feeling trapped in a conventional life and an unfulfilling marriage, Hedda grapples with her desires and realizations about her sexuality by manipulating those around her in a cruel and self-destructive game with tragic results.

“It’s very, very faithful to the original piece,” Kava said of her approach. “The danger of having a relationship, even within your marriage, it seems the taboo of that is much more felt for me when changing the gender of the partner. That was a much more dangerous relationship to have. I thought that perhaps at the turn of the century when Ibsen was writing, to have an affair with an alcoholic man, it was a taboo and a scandal. In this day and age, I think that creating the same impact is more successful if you change the gender of the character.”

Aside from Lovborg’s gender, the only other major change Kava admits to making is the time period in which the play is set.

“In adapting it, I very consciously had to change the date,” she said about moving the play forward from the late 1800s. “I had to make it a little bit later because Eilert competes with George Tesman for an academic position and, at the turn of the century, women weren’t teaching at universities. I needed to push it to 1912 because that’s when women could compete in reality for a position. I so admired the play and the journey of the protagonist who impulsively hurts so many people because she really doesn’t know how to be herself. As a gay woman myself, the struggle for identity and to accept it and live that life when you’re in a society that isn’t reflecting or supporting it, now I understand why Hedda is such a tragic character. It really made me further admire Henrik Ibsen because I think he really saw women in society as struggling to have their full lives. I thought that I was being very faithful to him. I think Henrik would be proud — assuming that he’s a liberal Democrat, of course.”

It’s no surprise that Hedda Gabler is a character seen in many theatrical circles as a female version of Hamlet, as her pursuits destroy those close to her and bring about her own demise as well. Still, her character is perceived in different ways and inspires differing levels of sympathy from the actors involved in the production.

Jennie Eisenhower, who plays Hedda in Mauckingbird’s production, said the lesbian twist to the plot makes Hedda’s actions easier to accept compared to the original.

“One of the things that I think is so fantastic about this adaptation is it allows me to absolutely see her in a more sympathetic light,” she said. “Playing her, of course I’m rooting for her and I do see her as a sympathetic character. But when I was working on her in college, it was a lot harder because there wasn’t that additional pain or secret about her being confused about her sexuality. I sort of had to create justifications for the things she did. Now I really feel that the adaptation really helps with portraying her and understanding what she is going through.”

Kava said she always read Hedda’s character as sympathetic and a tragic heroine both in her adaptation and in Ibsen’s original play.

“I certainly identify with her,” she said. “When you’re not being yourself and holding back so many normal natural impulses that are there can be a free-floating anger. The soul really rebels against that. I think that people inadvertently hurt and strike out because the spirit itself is trying to gain expression. That’s the way I look at this play. Otherwise, I don’t think [Ibsen] would write it if she wasn’t a sympathetic character. I don’t think she’s a mean, hateful person. Why would he put her in the lead of the play? He’s a great social realist. He’s trying to make some kind of point. It’s a tragedy. I am very sympathetic to her. I imagine that because her mother dies in childbirth, her father probably loved her and hated her at the same time. She too wanted to be an artist like Eilert, but she wanted to please her father. She could never please him because he loved and hated her at the same time. It’s interesting in that her mother is not mentioned throughout the whole play. So that’s what I think supports that. Her father is mentioned and he too has passed. The society is provided by [her father]. It has the patriarchy that Ibsen wrote about in ‘A Doll’s House,’ where women are in their positions governed by men.”

Kava also noted how plausible Hedda’s repressed lesbianism is, given the character’s actions.

“To go on Hedda’s ride instead of trying to jump on everyone who’s affected by her, I think she’s a heartbreaking character,” she said. “I think she’s someone who desperately is trying to be herself, and she defines being herself as taboo and scandalous. I recognize that. I see that in young people and even not-so-young people — gay, lesbians and transgender people trying to live a life in a clearly heterosexual and frequently fundamental religious community. I think she’s also very witty and funny. She’s very much like a lesbian that way. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself. When you can’t be yourself, you can become a bitch and it’s very funny. It certainly beats being a self-pitying bog of a person. I think that’s what’s attractive about her. She’s angry rather than self-pitying. The odds in her drive to be herself decrease as the play goes on because of her social ineptness. You either follow your heart or you do what’s expected of you. She wants to follow her heart and she’s constantly forcing herself to do what’s expected of her. When she finally follows her heart, she’s in a really angry mode and she does something that hurts.”

Sarah Sanford, who plays Miss Lovborg, said that some versions of “Hedda Gabler” fail to capture the complexities of the lead character.

“I think there are some productions of the play that miss that,” she said. “I think she’s a sympathetic character. I don’t think she’s necessarily a likable person. It’s one of the great inventions of the theater, that you can create a character who is such a failure in her life. She can’t make connections with people. She can’t find a way to be happy. But I think we can all identify with that.”

Other characters in the play aren’t easily categorized either. Even though Lovborg is eventually brought down by Hedda’s games, director Kava doesn’t see the character as a victim.

“I think Miss Lovborg is empathetic,” she said. “What’s wonderful about Miss Lovborg is that she is living her life, come what may. She uses alcohol to do that. Of course, all hell breaks loose and she loses what’s important to her. That’s what alcoholism and substance abuse does to a person. But she is absolutely herself. I think that she’s an incredibly attractive character. I don’t think its Eilert’s tragedy. Eilert’s reappearance just only heightens for Hedda her perception that she is not leading her life. Following Eilert, she gets to see a lesbian relationship in her living room. Apart from the alcoholism, Eilert is a successful lesbian. I identify with her a lot as well. She’s not the protagonist in the play that Hedda is.”

Sanford said she enjoys playing such an “off-balanced” character.

“It’s an incredibly exciting role,” she said. “She has an addictive personality. It requires a real moment-to-moment sensitivity. There’s a transition that happens incredibly quickly, a descent into drinking again. She falls off the wagon. The challenge of that kind of role is very appealing to me. I’d love to play Hedda someday but this feels really good for right now.”

Like her co-stars, Sanford sees Hedda’s story as one that can carry significant weight with today’s audiences.

“In this version, to have a secret that she’s in love with a lesbian, I think it makes it more contemporary in that sense,” she said. “But I feel like the struggle she’s going through, that’s going to be sympathetic no matter when the play is set or who Eilert Lovborg is. I do think there’s something a little more contemporary in this adaptation that makes it beautifully complex.”

Kava also touts the complexity of Hedda’s character. She said Hedda’s failures are as much a symptom of those around her as they are part of her own shortcomings as a person, adding that those issues are just as relevant today as they were when Ibsen wrote about them.

“The people around Hedda don’t realize what she’s going through,” Kava explained. “Just like [President-elect Obama] hiring this guy to speak at the inauguration. People don’t get it. They don’t get that it’s so hurtful. My partner and I were canvassing for [Obama]. I was literally getting a poster framed of his and then I came back to the apartment and she told me the news that [anti-gay pastor] Rick Warren was going to be speaking. I felt heartsick. I’ve heard some of the discussion on the news and people don’t get it. That’s the theme of ‘Hedda Gabler.’ Hers is this woman crying for attention, trying to participate, and people aren’t getting it. Will somebody please take this woman seriously? No. They don’t have a place. They’re not given their place in the world.”

“Hedda Gabler” runs Jan. 10-29 at Adrienne Theatre’s Second Stage, 2030 Sansom St. For more information, visit www.maukingbirdtheatreco.org or call (215) 923-8909.

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].