Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington, All About Eve’s Eve Harrington, Mean Girls’ Regina George, Melrose Place’s Amanda Woodward, Days Of Our Lives’ Sami Brady … All these movie and TV bad girls owe a debt of gratitude to the brazen hussy that started it all way back in 1890, the one-and-only Hedda Gabler, brought up to 21st Century life in Save Me, Valerie Rachelle’s modern interpretation of Henrik Ibsen’s late 19th-Century classic, directed with style and flair by Rachelle and featuring a sensational Shannon Nelson as Her Majesty, Queen Bitch Hedda.
Co-writers Rachelle and Rick Robinson stick closely to Ibsen’s storyline with some tweaking here and there. (Eilert is now “Evan” and Judge Brack no longer a judge but simply “Brack.” Aunt Julia’s bonnet—the one that Hedda ever so “innocently” ridicules—has become a jacket and George now hopes to secure “tenure track” rather than a mere professorship.)
As in the Ibsen original, we first meet the late Senator Gabler’s daughter and her milquetoast hubby George (Ed Robinson) upon their return from a three-month European honeymoon which must have cost college instructor George a pretty penny. The newlyweds have just moved into a five-bedroom home, its down payment made by Aunt Julia (AnnaLisa Erickson), who’s had to take out a reverse mortgage to do so. Brack (Jack Sochet) is still around to blackmail Hedda, who continues to carry a torch for recently published novelist Evan (Justin Lujan), two years on the wagon thanks to the love of a good woman, Hedda’s onetime classmate Thea (Natasha Harris), who’s been carrying on a secret affair with Evan behind the back of her 22-years-older State Assemblyman husband.
21st-Century Hedda remains every bit as bored with her life as she was a hundred and twenty-five years ago, loves her father’s pistols equally as much, and still finds her life’s greatest pleasures in making those around her as miserable as is inhumanly possible.
Rachelle opens Save Me with a visit inside Hedda’s head, voices from her past and present swirling around her brain, including those of Hedda’s late father (“It’s what’s expected of you”), husband George (“I can’t stop thinking of you”), ex-lover Brack (“You and I are of one mind”), and former flame Evan (“You don’t care about me at all”).
Those voices are soon joined by that of The Queen Of Soul herself, Miss Aretha Franklin, whose “Save Me” not only provides Rachelle’s adaptation with its catchy title but transports us inside Hedda’s soul in the first of a series of reality-meets-fantasy sequences, strikingly choreographed by Rachelle with some of Aretha’s Greatest Hits providing the soundtrack.
Rachelle has conceived these dance-like sequences as a way of “embodying Hedda’s subtext,” and they are Save Me’s most daring move, one that—for this reviewer at least—pays off quite excitingly, and never more so than when they involve not just Hedda alone, take for instance when Evan and Hedda’s recollections of their physical intimacy (“I would slip my hand under your suit – a one piece – on your hip …”) become a sensuous pas de deux, or when later on a pas de trois adds Thea to the mix.
Leading lady Nelson (a recent Best Featured Actress Scenie winner for Sacred Fool’s production of Absolutely Filthy) is once again absolutely stunning, a star turn so magnetic you can’t take your eyes off her—so quicksilver is her performance and so riveting are her reactions, whether of longing, or disdain, or rage, or a combination of the above.
Harris is quite splendid too, digging deep beneath Thea’s mousy exterior to reveal the passionate woman hiding below the surface, and Erickson makes a memorable impression in her brief scenes as George’s overly indulgent (and more than a tad touchy-feely) aunt.
Among the men in Hedda’s orbit, Robinson does a respectable job as the wishy-washy George and Lujan is a dynamic, sexy presence as Evan. Less successful is Sochet, who gives back line readings in response to Nelson’s in-the-moment spontaneity.
Various bits of tweaking would make for an even stronger production. David Nett’s otherwise stylishly conceived scenic design could use more set dressing (paintings on its noticeably bare walls would help a lot) to give credibility to everyone’s “oohs” and “aahs” about its supposed elegance. Also, anyone familiar with Ibsen’s original knows how important it is that the audience realize that the gun box Hedda loves nothing more than to open and gaze into contains not one but two pistols. And anyone as familiar with guns as Hedda is presumed to be would show considerably more care when holding one while in someone else’s presence, and when passing it into someone else’s hands it would definitely not be barrel first.
Ellen King’s well chosen costumes are a design plus, particularly Hedda’s outfits in shades of white and gray. Lighting by Gabriel (that’s it, just Gabriel) is first rate, with special snaps for the fantasy effects. The Aretha Franklin soundtrack is another major asset.
Tyler Scheef is assistant director, Siobhan Doherty movement assistant, and Robinson dramaturg. Frederick Snyder provides Senator Gabler’s prerecorded voice. Save Me is produced for Lucid By Proxy by Nelson, Nett, Rachelle, Patty Ramsey, Robinson, and Jeanette Scherrer.
Save Me marks Lucid By Proxy’s 16th World Premiere since the company’s creation back in 2000, and their first production since 2010’s multiple Scenie-winning Into The Woods. Though not the unadulterated triumph Rachelle and company might have wished, it is a daring and largely successful venture, and one well worth checking out, if for no other reason than its sensational star.
The Complex Theater, 6476 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.
November 7, 2013