ion theatre’s twisted and high-tech take on Ibsen-centric drama is anything but mechanical
By Donnie Matsuda
She’s quite a woman, that Hedda Gabler.
As the tired and tireless housewife at the center of Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 play, Gabler is perhaps one of the most perplexing and astonishing characters in the history of theatre. In the play that bears her namesake, she is portrayed as the idealistic heroine fighting society, keeping her hopes high despite the reality of her loveless and fortuneless marriage and taking matters into her own desperate hands when the opportunity arises to satisfy her jealous urges. In the end, Gabler enables her husband’s literary rival, Ejlert Lovborg, to commit suicide and ultimately unable to bear the guilt of her actions, she goes into her bedroom and shoots herself in the head.
With a play of such a bizarre nature, there have been numerous adaptations and attempts to write alternate productions of this twisted tale. Elizabeth Meriwether’s Hedda Gabler spin-off Heddatron, currently undergoing an eclectic revival at the always groundbreaking ion theatre, is a more high-tech and perhaps a more lighthearted look at the implications of living an unhappy life within the suffocating confines of your own home. As Meriwether suggests, life just might be easier if we could escape away to the Ecuadorian forests and frolic with the robots.
It all begins when a book of Ibsen’s famed work falls from the sky and lands in the living room of a housewife from Ypsilanti, Michigan as she trudges through her mundane household tasks of tidying up, folding laundry, and, of course, polishing the gun with which she plans to blow her brains out. This dissatisfied housewife is named Jane Gordon (an appropriately downtrodden Monique Gaffney) and she bears some striking resemblances to Hedda Gabler: she’s pregnant, she’s suicidal, and she’s dreadfully unhappy with her commonplace family, which here includes her filmmaking husband Rick (an honest and heartfelt Nick Kennedy) and her young daughter Nugget (an inquisitive and delightfully precocious Zoe Turner Sonnenberg). As the play's narrator of sorts, Nugget provides the audience with ample Ibsen “fun facts” and tips on how to construct a “well-made play” from her sixth-grade book report on the subject. Her adorable - and at times hilarious - interludes serve as the bridge between her mother’s miserable existence trapped on her living room couch and another man’s (here, Henrik Ibsen himself) miserable existence trapped at his dining room table.
It’s an intriguing juxtaposition of sorts, as we watch the clumsy and socially inept Norwegian playwright (a droll Charles Peters) furtively plead for his own liberation from his overbearing wife Suzannah (a brash D’Ann Paton), his sexy German maid Else (a lively Amanda Vitiello), and his rogue-ish rival August Strindberg (a dashing Sven Salumaa). Here, much like housewife Jane and even Hedda Gabler herself, Ibsen buckles under the weight of society’s rigid expectations and struggles to deal with the daily pressures of being an eminent writer. As a means of coping, he resorts to playing with dolls.
As the eccentric play deepens, we come closer and closer to the play’s thematic underpinnings as we are educated about the concept of “The Singularity” – the theoretical moment when robots achieve sentience and become one and the same with humans. We are told that time is not far off (beware of the toaster that talks back to you or the oven that refuses to cook your dinner) and as a prime example of this android invasion, we witness two robots try to woo our heroic housewife Jane by their magic mantra, “turn around, bright eyes.” These love-struck automatons, named Billy-Bot and Hans (and played with gizmo gusto by Dawlar Allmoo and DeLonBot BevBot), use their electric energy to abduct dear Jane and transport her to the rainforests of Ecuador where she is forced to perform the role of, you guessed it, Hedda Gabler, in an all-robot version of the play. Also making an appearance here are Berta-Bot, Judge Brack-Bot, and Julie-Bot (recently seen at the La Jolla Playhouse as a dressing “dummy” in their production of “Private Fittings.”)
These five fully functional robots (designed by Matthew Alexander, engineered by Paul Geantil and controlled/voiced by off-stage actors) move and spin about with reckless abandon but know when to tone down the melodramatic robo-acting, so as not to completely drain their batteries. Nonetheless, these analog actors still manage to come out of their shell (casings) on more than one occasion and even take part in a rousing musical number with the full cast to the tune of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Director Claudio Raygoza keeps his briskly paced, 75 minute one-act zipping along and manages to integrate a number of diverse media into his quirky production. From video clips, to projections, to life-sized talking robots, this play is as high-tech as it gets and everything goes off without a hitch. It is quite a monstrous task for such a small company as ion, but their boundary-pushing and risk-taking has paid off quite well with this intriguing (and, dare I say, magnetic) play.
And if all of Heddatron’s robotic rigamarole seems a bit overwhelming, there is at least a somewhat happy ending in store for our dear Jane and Ibsen. Too bad that Hedda Gabler didn’t get it, but the play suggests that love and meaning can eventually overcome the mundane – you just have to conquer your inner doubts, as well as a few robots, along the way.
Things to know before you go: Heddatron presented by ion theatre company plays at The BLKBOX @ 6th and Penn through March 31, 2012. Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays at 4pm. Tickets are $10-$29. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 600-5020 or visit www.iontheatre.com.