A crackerjack theatrical design can make the difference between a very good production and a great one, and can sometimes even make a so-so script seem better than it actually is. I loved Jeff Whitty’s surrealistic comedy The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler when I caught its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in January of 2006. Having now seen it for the second time at Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson Theatre, I begin to wonder how much of my enjoyment of Hedda’s adventures in the afterlife came as a result of SCR’s superb set, lighting, and sound design. Take these away from the play, and what ends up on stage is something considerably less successful, despite a committed director and cast.

Whitty’s absurdist farce begins with the final scene in Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama, Hedda’s suicide, and goes on from there, with its heroine embarking on an adventure in a limbo somewhere between heaven and hell, a netherworld populated entirely by fictional or mythical characters (Mammy from Gone With The Wind, Masha from The Three Sisters, Little Orphan Annie, Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz, Stanley Kowalski, Medea, and Icarus) as well as some more generic figures (a poetry-spouting, Afro-sporting poetess from the 1970s, a bitchy, self-loathing pre-Stonewall gay couple, a Josephine Bakeresque chanteuse, and finally, a trio of Jesuses including one in clown garb a la Godspell).

Individual lines generate considerable laughter from start to finish, and it’s a great deal of fun seeing Mammy and Medea on stage at the same time, but without a design package to transport us quite literally to another world, the rather too avant-gardy nature of Whitty’s comedy stands out in a way that seemed not to matter at South Coast Rep.

Aside from Anne Gesling’s excellent costumes, the Morgan-Wixson production design comes up short, to the detriment of the excellent work being done by a number of the cast members, particularly AnnaLisa Erickson (Medea, Lotion Lady, Dying Lady, Jack Sparrow), Shana Gregory Williams (Mammy and her liberated alter ego Shamari Robinson), and Carolyn Heier (Flossie, Junkie, Dorothy, and Annie). George Dickson and Aaron Merken are terrific too as the bitchiest gays since Emory and Harold wisecracked their way through The Boys In The Band. (Dickson also doubles as Suffering Jesus and Jar Jar Binks.)

Perhaps The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler is a play that can work well only when the bucks are big (a la SCR), either that or barebones, but in a small, intimate space.

The Morgan-Wixson, unfortunately, has neither the budget nor the intimacy needed to make Whitty’s play succeed, so what you have are actors lost on a cavernous, nearly bare black stage. Acoustics suffer accordingly. Some of lighting designer William Wilday choices work well (the “we’re in hell now” red certainly does), but more pizzazz is needed. Sam Mossler’s sound design provides the appropriate cues, but here again the play needs more. (The SCR production had mood-setting original music.) The result is a production that often seems more like sitting in on a rehearsal than seeing a fully-staged production.

Director Sabrina Lloyd sets the right farcical tone, and performances by Mato Grbavac (George Tesman, Musical Jesus), Dena Jaquillard (Tosca, Cassandra, Wonder Woman, Hecate), Ruthenna Porterfield (Diane, Woman In Pink, Masha, Anne Boleyn, Black Jesus), and Ian Federgreen (Eilert Lovborg, Jesus, Icarus, Stanley Kowalski, Chainsaw Man) are all good. As Hedda herself, however, Macedonian actress Kalinka Pajvanska has the tough assignment of performing not just a lead role but a character onstage from start to finish—all this in a second language. Despite Pajvanska’s best efforts, this—and her accent, however slight—prove distracting and distancing to a character we ought to love and identify with, no matter how gloomy she may be.

The Morgan-Wixson has had a string of successful productions over the past year or so, including Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Little Dog Laughed, Urinetown, and A Chorus Line, all of which received award recognition on StageSceneLA’s Best Of The Year lists. It’s a disappointment that The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler isn’t more successful, because clearly a good deal of hard work has gone into this production, effort that deserves recognition and a round of applause, even though the finished product doesn’t match previous Morgan-Wixson hits.

Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.
–Steven Stanley
October 2, 2010

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