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THEATER REVIEW: “Hedda Gabler” is classic Ibsen at UCSD

Poor old Hedda (Zoë Chao). There’s nothing worse than a boring life (or so she would say), but that’s what she chose when she married scholar George Tesman (Kyle Anderson).

The reasons were simple: George proposed just as she was nearing her “sell by” date, and was silly enough to promise her a big house he could ill afford.

Now Ibsen’s newlyweds are returning from their honeymoon trip of almost six months and about to settle into the new digs, a villa
previously owned by the widow of a cabinet minister. And Hedda is realizing this marriage was a mistake.

But here she is, stuck with George and visits from his (boring) Aunt Julia (Ngozi Anyanwu), whom she immediately (if accidentally) insults.

“Hedda Gabler” (playing through Feb. 26 at UCSD’s Forum Theatre) has no ghosts, but the past comes back to haunt her in the form of recycled former lovers and friends within her small social circle.

Hedda’s former lover, renegade scholar Eilert Lovborg (Hugo Medina), for example, more brilliant but less disciplined than George (and in the same field), was thought to have crashed and burned thanks to alcohol. But no, not only is he getting good reviews for his just-published book, but also shows up in the area talking about another, even better book he’s working on.

It seems Hedda’s former schoolmate Mrs. Elvsted, aka Thea (Sara Garcia), wife of the sheriff, has rescued the reprobate Eilert and helped him with his book while he was serving as tutor to her stepchildren.

Then there’s Judge Brack (Scott W. Patteson), old family friend and George’s confidant, who has his own designs on the beautiful ice queen.
Hedda seems to feel trapped by her situation, is by her own admission capable only of “boring myself to death,” and her only friends seem to be the pair of pistols she inherited from her father, Gen. Gabler.

Only Medina’s reformed reprobate Eilert seems able to stir anything approaching passion in Hedda, but she is too much the coward to try to reconnect.

So she takes out her frustration on everyone around, with a cutting remark here, an intentional slight there, and that way of looking past – or even away from – people she deigns too boring or not worthy of her attention (such as poor George).

Hedda may see herself as a caged bird, but Chao plays her as I see her: spoiled brat turned victimizer, with hostility oozing out of every pore. Naturally gorgeous, Chao looks both fabulous and unapproachable, and Alina Bokovikova’s sleek and slinky costumes make her look even better – and more frosty.

Anderson’s George, with his naïveté and lack of guile, is no match for Hedda, and by the end hardly seems to know what hit him.

Anyanwu convinces as George’s doting Aunt Julia, Patteson is suitably slimy as the less-than-subtle Judge Brack, and Natalie Birriel a hoot as Berta, the underappreciated maid, who provides the only comic relief.

Garcia (to whom Director Anthony Luciano has given the flaming red hair Ibsen reserved for the unseen prostitute Diana) gives us the only character with any gumption – a desperate housewife who up and left her husband, come what may.

The UCSD production offers a spiffy minimalist but effective set (kudos to set designer Kathryn Lieber), with tall frames and huge “window” spaces, a large fish tank, a long settee and the famous curtains.

The details

“Hedda Gabler” plays through Feb.26 at the Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre, UCSD.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.

For tickets, call (858) 534-4574 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.