In a case of serendipitous cross-programming, two of Henrik Ibsen’s most iconic heroines are currently alive and well and onstage in San Diego, Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House at The Old Globe and Hedda Gabler in The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler at Diversionary Theatre.

No, you didn’t read that last title wrong. Though The Old Globe is featuring Ibsen’s Doll House in its original, albeit freshly translated, form, Diversionary is offering San Diegans Jeff Whitty’s surrealistic comedy The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler, and if Whitty’s play runs about twenty minutes longer than it ought to, in all other ways it makes for a heady, laugh-out-loud, thought-provoking evening of absurdist theater.

HEDDA_COMPANY Whitty’s madcap farce starts off with a bang, literally, with the suicide which ends its heroine’s life—and Ibsen’s play—and goes on from there, Hedda 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, Little Orphan Annie, Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz, Medea, and Tosca, to name just a few) as well as some more generic figures—a poetry-spouting, Afro-sporting poetess from the 1970s, a bitchy, self-loathing (yet hilarious) pre-Stonewall gay couple, a Josephine Bakeresque chanteuse, and a trio of Jesuses including one in clown garb a la Godspell.

The premise of Hedda’s Further Adventures is as follows:

HEDDAandMAMMY Having placed pistol to head and pulled its trigger, Ibsen’s doomed leading lady now finds herself endlessly reliving her suicide in a purgatory known as the Cul de Sac Of The Tragic Heroines, with Mammy around to wipe the blood off the floor ad infinitum and hubby George on hand to provide sympathy and support.

It turns out that it’s the enduring popularity of Hedda Gabler, Gone With The Wind, and other literary classics that forces Hedda (Jacque Wilke) and her fictional friends to keep on repeating their destinies until the day those classics have faded into memory—as if that’s ever going to happen.

No longer content to accept this fate, Hedda comes to a decision. She’s going to set off on a journey to The Furnace, the place where she came to life, and once arrived, see if she can get her creator to rewrite her as happy.

Mammy (Yolanda Franklin) too, has had enough of being a slave, so she joins Hedda on her trek, with the ever faithful George (Andrew Oswald) along for the ride.

HEDDA_Heddaandtheboys Along the way, the trio of travelers are joined by bitchy but lovable gay couple Steven (Tony Houck) and Patrick (Luke Jacobs), straight out of the hell-on-earth created for their pre-Gay Lib brethren by Mart Crowley in 1968 smash The Boys In The Band—just as sassy but not nearly as dark and tormented as Crowley’s Boys.

WomaninPink_Mammy Other characters pop in and out, including the aforementioned Medea (Shana Wride) and a trio of Jesuses (Dangerfield G. Moore, Houck, and Jacobs). Also notable among Hedda and Mammy’s fellow travelers are a pair of African-American women both played by Lynaé DePriest—Flossie, a 1920s flapper, and Woman In Pink, aka “goddess, queen, Cleopatra, Nefertiti, jammin’ down the Nile, boat-men rowin’ to the rhythm of my tongue whippin’, snackin’, and smackin’.” (And you though Mammy had a way with words.)

Though it takes Whitty (and his characters) too long to reach their final destination, the Tony-winning book-writer of Avenue Q has an important point to make, that without these now offensive stereotypes paving the way, there would be no liberated women, gay men, or African American heroes in the 21st Century.

As a previously reviewed production of The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler made amply clear, Whitty’s comedy can sink or soar depending on direction, performance, design, and tone, and in all of the above, Diversionary Theatre hits the bull’s-eye, beginning with its choice of directors.

Matt McGrath follows a pair of acting triumphs (as “Sweet Transvestite” Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter in The Old Globe’s The Rocky Horror Show and as Adam in Diversionary’s Next Fall) with a standout Diversionary directorial debut. McGrath’s adeptly comic hand is visible from the moment we first lay eyes on Hedda, legs hanging over the back of a divan, head upside-down and nearly on the floor, blood pooled around her, an image at once horrific and outrageously funny, and McGrath and company go on from there.

Under McGrath’s direction, Whitty’s tweaked versions of celebrated fictional icons maintain just the right balance between authentic character and over-the-top caricature, beginning with the divine Wilke who plays Hedda straight, but with just enough comedic quirks (and the most watchable facial expressions in town) to let us know we’re not quite in Ibsenland anymore.

HEDDA_BoysandTessman And speaking of divine, they don’t get any diviner than San Diego treasure Houck and Jacobs, his fictional (life-)partner in crime, returning for his sophomore Diversionary outing having played Houck’s mother in Pippin last summer. The duo couldn’t be more fabulous as a pair of Bandesque Boys whose sassy exchanges are the evening’s biggest laugh-getters. Take for example:

STEVEN (speaking of Hedda’s hubby): She’s a veritable Meriwether Lewis for heterosexual men. PATRICK: Sacagawea. STEVEN: Oh, right. That’s funnier. PATRICK: You’re welcome.

Houck and Jacobs also double amusingly as a pair of very different Jesuses.

As Mammy, Franklin not only channels Hattie McDaniel to nostalgic perfection, she gets to do her best Deena Jones-meets-Effie White as Mammy’s belting-to-the-rafters alter ego Shamari Robinson.

DePriest is terrific too as Flossie (“I’m bent on making it in show business and I do a big song and dance number for a Broadway producer—it’s gangbusters!”) and free verse-spouting, revolutionary type Woman In Pink.

HEDDAandMedea San Diego theater staple Wride is once again a Diversionary standout, this time round getting to sink her talented teeth into mythical heroines Medea and Cassandra, with assorted funny bits as Little Orphan Annie and a 1950s housewife known as “Lotion Lady” along the way.

HEDDAandJesus Having proven himself a master of multiple roles in Diversionary’s The Pride, Moore now gets to play another several, each of them in inimitable fashion, including Hedda’s one-time suitor Eilert and Jesus in carpenter mode.

Completing the excellent cast is Oswald, who gets to play it mostly straight as Tesman, and does so with flair.

Hedda_BoatScene As always, Diversionary has assembled a topnotch design team, beginning with costume designer Shirley Pierson, who has clearly had a field day creating outfits for characters as diverse as Hedda, Mammy, Shamari, Medea, Musical Jesus, and even the Chainsaw Killer. Matt Scott’s scenic design provides us with a passport into Whitty’s fantasy world, aided and abetted by Michelle Caron’s vibrant, imaginative lighting design. (When Scott turns Hedda’s chaise lounge around to morph into Hedda and company’s boat, can you say inspired bit of design genius?) Kevin Anthenill’s sound design is a winner too, with its gunshots and screams and sounds of burning flames. Prop designer David Medina completes the design team with a terrific lineup of paraphernalia including a humungous pistol, cocktail glasses, and even a bottle of Fresh Start.

Deborah Climo is stage manager, Bret Young producing director, John E. Alexander executive director, and Carlos Malamud production sponsor.

Though The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler sometimes seems like a case of Less Would Have Been More (the extended Jesus sequence in particular comes across as de trop), there can be no doubt that this is one funny play, and one splendidly staged production. Hedda herself would undoubtedly approve.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
April 6, 2013
Photos: Ken Jacques

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