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Hedda Gabler – The Pistols (Antaeus Theatre)

Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 study of a woman thwarted in her life by societal constraints was a shocker in its day. “Hedda Gabler,” a strikingly beautiful creation, was the pride-and-joy of her late father, General Gabler, which in essence has ruined her for other men. The horseback riding they did together while he was alive, as well as being a strong force in their town, made her the envy of other women, but has left her cold and imperious.

Antaeus’ latest foray into the European Classical Literature, their last in this beloved home in North Hollywood before their fall season in their new residence in Glendale, is, unhappily, an awkward production, with an incredibly unmemorable set, an uneven partner-cast, and a truly unfortunate re-setting into the 1920s.

Director Steven Robman, after apparently conducting a wide search of available translations, chose Australian writer Andrew Upton’s fine version – slightly adjusting the language, but keeping Ibsen’s observation of the uncomfortable transition from a conservative and religiously-rigid society into what might seem to be an advancement of women’s rights. But by setting it into a time 30 years beyond the period Ibsen’s wrote in, just prior to the 20th Century, Robman distorts (ever-so-slightly, but crucially) how Hedda Gabler Tesman’s awareness of what marriage, an impending pregnancy, and her somewhat lessened social status has made of her.

Hedda (an extraordinarily fine Nike Doukas), a true anti-heroine, married the scholar George Tesman (the always dependable JD Cullum), demanding that he support her on his academic salary (increased if he gains a professorship at the University) to a standard her late father had set for her.

The couple have just returned from a half-year’s honeymoon, he ecstatic over his first-hand research on some obscure subject concentrated during the middle-ages, aware that no-one else has taken that coveted issue, but unaware of his bride’s disaffection, let alone our own disinterest. She has had a previous lover, Ejlert Løvborg (Ned Mochel), a wastrel now is in the process of reforming himself. But she has idolized him as a Greek god of sorts, as a drunken athlete with “vine-leaves in his hair.” 

Into the expensive house of the Tesman’s comes a former school-mate of Hedda’s, Thea Elvsted (Kwana Martinez), who has walked out of her marriage with a widower with children, a relationship which is destroying her. 

Tesman was raised by two loveable aunties, one of whom, Julle (lovely Lynn Milgrim), is caring for her dying sister, but who has put up their pensions against a loan so that George and Hedda can have quality furniture, which Hedda in fact hates. Also in this ménage is Judge Brack (a snappy James Sutorius), an old friend of Hedda and the General who is now prepared to blackmail her into becoming his mistress.

And when an evening-out of “the boys” (Brack and Tesman) encourages Løvborg to drop his abstemious and healthy ways, it all ends up tragically, which Hedda fantasizes as heroic, ultimately dooming her.

Ibsen was pulling no punches here about how 19th Century society trained women to abandon their inner selves for mindless and suffocating conformity. And Robman directs his two-casts (“The Pistols” here) with clarity and intelligence. But Se Hyun Oh’s set of white silky curtains not adding to the period look of this house threw off the look, making it difficult to concentrate on the action. Leah Piehl’s costumes were period-right, but couldn’t obviate the distortion of an incorrect decade. 

As usual, however, Antaeus’ terrific company is able to mostly pull off Ibsen’s anguish over his society’s short-comings when it came to female/male combinations. Doukas, Cullum, Milford, Sutorious and Mochel fed us intricate characterizations that allowed for full audience understanding.

“Hedda Gabler” plays through July 17th at Antaeus Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood, 91601. Tickets: 818.506.1983 or at