Washington Ensemble Theatre’s blahblahblahBANG confronts you with two distinct modes of performance. The first includes rock climbing, aerials, striptease – typical of On the Boards’ self-described “weird art environment. ” ”¦BANG’s second mode remains true to its source, the 19th Century naturalistic drama Hedda Gabler, wherein the narrative proceeds through a realistic plotting of action and emotional argument that lead to Ibsen’s dark conclusion. While this production leaves with us with the usual (and possibly more) questions about that final act and Hedda’s character, there’s an irresistible boldness to this theatrical hybrid.
Director and set designer Jennifer Zeyl and company find quick emblems and gestural ticks to deftly introduce the characters. The housemaid Berta fetches toy soldiers thrown to the corners of the room; a clucky Aunt Tesman swills and regurgitates tea for her downy and doted-on Tesman (played with a measured elegance by Lathrop Walker); swaggering Judge Brack belts a cock–a-doodle-do and climbs up the “henhouse ” walls. It’s a barnyard full of physical and visual inventions that provide playful humor, alluring quirkiness, and hit-or-miss clarity and depth.
In an effective use of prop-drama, Thea Elvsted enters the stage tethered to Tesman by a bullwhip. Zeyl’s certainly got animal husbandry on the brain (also, eggs!), but this device is eerie and surprising, and it brings to this naturalistically played scene clarity and urgency. Later, Eilert Lovborg (played by a mod combo of Bernal and Beattie, Colin Byrne) enters and mock-collapses under the weight of the manuscript that provokes the downfall of this romantic recidivist. Yet even as the company experiments with stylized, often bizarre, movements, each of the actors manages to find a natural body. WET’s actors are a pleasure to watch.
Lyrical interstitials interrupt the story – dreams, dances, sex. In perhaps the most abrupt of these interludes, Eilert ascends the twin red folds of a very symbolic curtain, performing a slow aerial show that you’ll find a dead-on, affecting visual metaphor or just gratuitous, but certainly risky. I myself feared for the actor’s life, and wavered in my opinion.
And then there’s Ibsen’s text -- layered, perplexing, difficult – modernized by Matt Starritt. There’s a great underlying story here that the actors serve well. Sure, I have my quibbles, and the path to Hedda’s end is a bit obscured by invention, but Marya Sea Kaminski is a utterly fluent actress and flits from repression, to decorousness, to hysterics, to heartsickness, with relative grace.
The ensemble is expert, and Zeyl is dynamic, if pleasantly puzzling. On the Boards seems to be doing the right thing here – taking a risk on talent. This Hedda Gabler is a brave one. Check it out.
- Steven Schardt