By Ruth Ross, Correspondent
Members of The Theater Project may have moved from Cranford to Maplewood, but they haven’t lost their penchant for choosing — and skillfully producing — off-beat plays. Their productions really make the audience think; in fact, their motto is “Think Theater.”
As the inaugural production of the 2012-2013 season, The Theater Project has chosen “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler,” by Jeff Whitty. Whitty, who also penned “Avenue Q,” presents a mishmash of characters and off-the-wall adventures, giving us a taste of just what might happen to those characters after the curtain comes down and the stage lights go out.
Written by Norwegian Henrik Ibsen in 1890, “Hedda Gabler” has been hailed as a classic example of realism, and its protagonist has been called “a female Hamlet.” The role itself has been controversial. Is Hedda an idealist fighting society, a pre-feminist or a manipulative vixen/villain? The interpretation often depends on the director and the actress playing the role.
In the final scene of Ibsen’s play, Hedda faces the suicide of Lovborg, her former lover — with the gun she provided him. She also must face: her role in the destruction of Lovborg’s masterpiece manuscript; plans to reconstruct the book from Lovborg’s notes; and a judge’s dominance over her, because he knows the truth about her role in Lovborg’s death. Distraught at the turn of events, Hedda excuses herself from the group, goes into another room and shoots herself in the head.
It is at this point that Whitty begins his play. We meet Hedda after the curtain has fallen on Ibsen’s play, but she’s not dead; she will be resurrected in another production and another, ad infinitum. She will be eternally unhappy, trapped in the “cruel limitations of that playwright.”
Faced with this revolting proposition, Hedda longs to leave the Cul de Sac of Tragic Women and travel to the Furnace, from which all imaginary characters emerge, and rewrite her life. She proclaims, “My renaissance begins,” and sets out on a quest to reinvent herself. In this she is egged on by child-murderer Medea and joined by Mammy, the house slave of “Gone with the Wind,” who seeks to “no longer be a bookmark in history.” Hedda is trailed by her husband, Tesman, who hopes to convince her to commit suicide yet again.
Along the way, Hedda runs into a bevy of characters also on journeys of self-evolution. These include: The Lady in Pink, a 1970s, Afro-wigged, go-go dancing character from an Ntozake Shange play; Anna Karenina; Cassandra, a black, female detective from television; Hannibal Lechter; Little Orphan Annie; and, most humorous of all, a pair of self-hating homosexuals from “The Boys in the Band,” among others. It’s enough to make one’s head spin.
Mark Spina’s fluid, deft direction keeps all the balls served up in the air. It helps that he has cast a group of very talented pros who manage to pull it all off successfully. Liz Zazzi’s brassy delivery suits Hedda’s domineering, drama-queen personality as she browbeats everyone into letting her rewrite her life, despite what the audience wants; the role, as written, gets tiresome after a while.
Gary Glor is fine as Tesman, Hedda’s mousy, academic husband. As Mammy, Rasha Jay is splendid, morphing from the classic character into a diva and back again; hers is the most moving performance in the play.
Rick Delaney is versatile, playing a host of characters, both male and female. From Medea to the Godspell Jesus to the despondent Eilert Lovborg, Delaney’s always in character and very entertaining.
Jason Gillis as Patrick, and Dennis DaPrile as Steven, the in-your-face gay characters from “The Boys in the Band,” sashay around the stage, throwing quips back and forth. The two have the chance to reveal one of the play’s themes: their — and Mammy’s — representations, while stereotypes, lay the groundwork for other characters to play against them, changing the way the world views blacks and homosexuals. Rachelle M. Dorce as The Lady in Pink and Barbara Guidi as Cassandra add to the merriment.
All this zaniness unfolds on a nifty set designed by Thomas Rowe, complete with a grand swath of red velvet curtain appropriate to a 19th-century production of “Hedda Gabler.” Sam Gordon provides atmospheric lighting, and Barbara Canace’s costumes, which reference various time periods, reveal character beautifully.
“The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” presents a mind-boggling swirl of literary references, some of which the audience may not get. The audience does not have to know much about Ibsen’s play; Whitty provides enough information in the opening scene.
As a play about the theater, Whitty’s work telegraphs several important themes.
For one thing, what do we do about characters created long ago, those whom we might find offensive today? What can we learn from them? What does an audience demand from dramatic personages? What role does the audience play in the “lives” of the characters on stage? It’s interesting to note that Hedda, a prototypical feminist, was created by a man, and Mammy, a slave, is the invention of a white woman. What’s up with that?
You don’t have to be a student of literature or drama to enjoy “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler.” This polished production, performed with seriousness and skill, puts an unusual spin on the way we view the fictional characters forever “stuck” in their stories, manipulated by their creators; perhaps the best thing is that they live again and again because the audience or reader feels empathy for them. Not a bad trade-off.
“The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” will be performed weekends through Sunday, Oct. 7, by The Theater Project at the Burgdorff Cultural Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. For information and tickets, call 973-763-4029 or visit www.thetheaterproject.org.