PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Hedda Gabler — Pistol-Packin' Parker

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26 Jan 2009

<I>Hedda Gabler</I>'s Mary-Louise Parker, Christopher Shinn, Michael Cerveris and Paul Sparks
Hedda Gabler's Mary-Louise Parker, Christopher Shinn, Michael Cerveris and Paul Sparks
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Broadway's 19th Hedda Gabler set up shop Jan. 25 at the American Airlines Theatre, and she is, of all people, Mary-Louise Parker, on hiatus — or "highatus"? — from TV's "Weeds."

From pot-peddling to pistol-packing — a snappy little change of pace she has set up for herself, you must admit. Here, her criminal duplicity is confined to leveling the opposite sex. One despondent suitor she sends off into the dead of night with the sweetest of smiles and one of her daddy's dueling pistols (make of it what you will). Then, adding insult to mortal injury, she flings his heart-and-soul manuscript — a metaphoric "love child" he has with his smitten collaborator — into the stove. Fini.

All this from a woman who has just waltzed down the aisle (albeit, with a malleable milquetoast). But the honeymoon is emphatically over and its glow long-gone as Henrik Ibsen begins his play. Parker roams her cavernous new digs with livid discontent, conveying silently a black mood that grows blacker with human contact.

"That was my idea," Parker beamed proudly at the after-party at Planet Hollywood where they served beer, wine and "Hedda's Last Shot" (a citrus vodka concoction).

The idea of doing Ibsen's horror show of a heroine in the first place was something dreamed up by Todd Haimes, Roundabout Theatre Company's artistic director. "Todd talked me into it," she relayed, "and he's so articulate and passionate. I've always wanted to work with, and for, him. His excitement about it was just infectious."

She even bothered to learn to play the piano for the part. "I told my teacher, 'I want to learn Chopin in three months.' At first, she said, 'Well, I dunno,' then she said, 'But I feel like you can do it for some reason. You seem like you can.' And I did!

"All of it was hard, and every night it changes, but the other actors are so amazing. I feel like they kinda eased me through it. I've really never loved a cast this much."

The biggest hurdle perhaps was posed by the actress' contemporary track-record, but she claimed she didn't have to work overtime to keep modern mannerisms out of 19th century Norway. "I was trained in a conservatory. I started out my career doing classics. I have the technique to do classical theatre. I thought I was going to spend my whole career in a corset. But it's new plays that excite me the most."

That being the case, it must have been soothing for her to have on board, adapting Ibsen, one of the most prolific and praised of the new playwrights, Christopher Shinn, who specializes in edgy, urban, contemporary dramas that seem much removed from Ibsen's world. Not so, the adapter contends.

Firstly, "Ibsen's my favorite writer, and, when he wrote this play, it was about urban, hip people in a sense. Hedda Gabler was quite unique for her time so I don't think that it's too different from what I write. I was really interested in the challenge of bringing the work alive for an audience in 2009, making it more than a museum production."

To that end, he had the help of Anne-Charlotte Harvey, who supplied the literal translation and is credited (in teensy agate type) on the title page of the Playbill.

"I don't speak Norwegian," Shinn freely admitted, "so I work from a literal translation. You have to filter through yourself. You really do. Even when you're trying to realize somebody else's vision, it all has to come through you. I did feel I had to make it a very personal experience, not just an intellectual one."

The title character did get some nips and tucks. "I think we tried to give the most balanced Hedda we could in the script. She's quite hard in the script. We've made some of her jibes softer than Ibsen did because I think, over time, the character has become a kind of monster, a steam-roller. We wanted to soften her around the edges in parts to emphasize some other elements of her. I still think she is a hard character, a mean character in general, but we weren't trying to emphasize that."

Parker was attached to the project when he signed on so he knew who he was writing for, and the actress had quite a lot of input on the ground-floor level.

"We sat around her kitchen table and talked about it and thought about it and worked on it together. Really, we stayed very close to the Ibsen — we cut quite a lot — but I don't think we invented much at all. It was really about finding what in the Ibsen could match Mary-Louise's voice in a way that felt really truthful to both."

Shinn's recent opus was set in this century and opened abroad. "I had a play in London in the fall that did really well, Now or Later. It had a very sold-out extended run at the Royal Court, and hopefully somebody will do it here in New York."

Shinn was one of the safe-to-proceed factors for Paul Sparks, an Off-Broadway vet who is creating his first Broadway role as Hedda's thoroughly doused old-flame.

[flipbook] "I'd never seen this play — I know it's weird, right? — but I really love it," he said. "I think Ibsen was writing really dangerous stuff back then. It's very similar to what Chris and Adam Rapp and Craig Wright and those people I work with a lot are writing, and so I jumped at the chance." It seemed like an easy jump for him, just camouflaged as a classic. "I haven't done them in a really long time. When I first got out of school, I did some Shaw and some Shakespeare, but in New York it has been all downtown all the time all new plays — so, yes, it's a different thing for me to do."

Ana Reeder is a young innocent who quietly pines for Sparks' character (but not so quietly that it gets by Hedda and triggers her wrath). "I know she's a bit of an anachronistic kind of woman, but I love her courage and her abandon. I love the fight in her, that she wants to love willy-nilly. So I cherish her and the opportunity to try to advocate for her on stage and make people understand what drives her." Scholarly nerds are not in Michael Cerveris' repertoire so he surprises as Hedda's battered new spouse. He even sacrificed his mojo more by growing five-o'clock stubble on his usually slick and spotless pate. "I love that there's not an attempt to clean everybody up and make 'em perfect. They're very ragged, people living very close to out of control all the time. I think that's reflected all throughout the show.

"I haven't done a role like this before," he seemed happy to say, "and it's not the role people would expect me to be playing in it, which I find real exciting. I like the challenge, that it is not an easy thing for me to play, that I had no idea what to do with it when I first started. I like breathing real flesh-and-blood life into a character that I think sometimes can come off as a bit of a joke on the page and a bit pale. I like trying to surprise people with it. There's no singing my way out of this one!"


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