The title character of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" is generally regarded as a forerunner of modern feminism - a woman who played with guns as readily as she did with men's egos. Nicholas Martin's production, with Kate Burton as Hedda, presents her as a precursor of the Valerie Solinas branch of feminism (remember the Society for Cutting Up Men?) rather than that of, say, Gloria Steinem. When we meet Hedda, she has returned from a long and not very enjoyable honeymoon with her husband, the bookish, ineffectual George Tesman. The only reason we can imagine she married him was that he was her last chance in a world where not to marry was not an option. Like other Ibsen heroines, Hedda is a woman of spirit and ambition. If there's anything tragic about her, it's that these qualities are so reined in by her claustrophobic society. In this production, she is so forthright, so strong and ultimately so successful at manipulating others that it's hard to understand why she would kill herself. It seems a needless gesture when she's having such a grand time destroying others. Hedda's malice is apparent in the very first scene, when she humiliates Aunt Julia, the woman who reared Tesman and is unable to let go of him. Burton makes her hostility so blatant that there's no mystery or ambiguity about the character. One is always aware of this Hedda's anger and spite. If we sense that these qualities grow from her inability to cope with the hand she has been dealt, we can find her sympathetic. Here, however, she seems to be coping all too well. Her lashing out at her husband and her former lover seems to grow not out of helplessness or frustration but out of pure sadism. Admittedly, the men here don't help. Michael Emerson makes Tesman a pure ninny. Even if he were her last choice, Hedda would not marry anyone this spineless. As her former lover, David Lansbury is so tense and distraught, he seems too easy a victim for her, hardly someone she once considered an equal. Only Harris Yulin, as the judge who threatens to blackmail her, conveys a subtle strength that makes us understand the menace he represents. Jennifer Van Dyck does well as Hedda's friend and rival, and Angela Thornton is properly dithering as Aunt Julia. But the production never suggests the tension or repression that could make Hedda's plight moving. The last act, especially, is pitched at such a hysterical level it ceases to be human. It's merely histrionic. Jon Robin Baitz's adaptation makes the text accessible and colloquial, perhaps too much so. If Hedda seems the victim of other times, other mores, we feel for her. If she seems too much our contemporary, the play makes no sense.
She enters, imperious in a floating pink peignoir, ironic yet rather jolly, mocking yet authoritative - and already bored, bored and bored.
She has made a disastrous marriage, she is living in a new house she doesn't care for and she is trailing youthful clouds of aristocratic glory now irretrievably dispersed.
She is Kate Burton making her entrance as Hedda, the heroine of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler," and she is superb.
This is the kind of performance Burton has hinted at for years, but never come close to delivering. Here is an actor transformed.
Nicholas Martin's new staging of the gorgeous Ibsen war-horse, which opened at the Ambassador Theatre Wednesday night, is a must-see and not simply for Burton's carefully etched portrait of a spirited Madame Bovary caught in some soulless suburban desert.
The production has a lot going for it - particularly the fluently idiomatic adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz, which I first encountered in Los Angeles a year or so ago, with a splendid Annette Bening as a tempestuously volatile Hedda.
Martin moves the play along with energy, although the melodramatic music is rather crude, and the staging at times uses such provincial devices as the long-held significant glance.
The setting by Alexander Dodge, with its evocation of a Scandinavian painting of the period, is one the best I have ever seen for the play, suggesting a supremely civilized yet airless cage.
Unfortunately, the play is far from evenly cast. Michael Emerson, after trading a few effete mannerisms, does measure up remarkably well as Tesman, Hedda's fussy, wimpishly academic and helpless doting new husband. This is the best thing Emerson, an ever-improving young actor, has so far done.
But the usually sturdily reliable Harris Yulin is more avuncular than menacing as Hedda's urbane nemesis, Judge Brack; David Lansbury shows little to no poetic charisma as the wild Eilert Lovberg, Hedda's earlier flame; and Jennifer Van Dyck as Thea Elvsted, Hedda's rival for Eilert's passion, is permitted to take mousiness far too far.
Burton is the thing here. Here is a real Hedda, a power-hungry, ruthless, manipulative charmer, a woman of sense and insight, desperately wanting to leave a mark on her own narrow world - remember, Ibsen was a fierce feminist - with romantic notions inherited from her father, General Gabler, and now, frustrated at all turns, caught in her own deadly trap.
This, and it's no shame, is essentially a conventional reading of Hedda. Burton hardly reshapes the role as did Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner's production a few years ago, yet her portrayal gives the convention the sharp delineation of novelty.
There is an extraordinary grace and rightness to all Burton's movements, and she has a cutting edge of amused irony to her voice that proves insightful and individual. However, I doubt the director's wisdom in her final cruciform death pose. (People don't shoot themselves like that!) So here is a production - unlike, say, Ingmar Bergman's realization of the classic text - that is made strictly into an old-fashioned star vehicle for Burton. She rides it triumphantly, with glamour and the kind of gleaming radiance that lights up Broadway.
She's a winner - and her dad would be proud.
She is absolutely terrified of scandal, she says; she will not have people talking about her. But now that Hedda Gabler is back in town, tongues are sure to start wagging more avidly than ever.
How could they not, given that Ibsen's most perplexing and beguiling heroine has been reincarnated with a clarity that positively stings by Kate Burton? Now here is a subject worth some serious gossip, a fascinator to command our absolute attention for a few hours while the world simmers ominously outside the Ambassador Theater, where ''Hedda Gabler'' opened in a pistol shot of a production last night.
Mind you, it's not an altogether comfortable experience. You somehow have the uneasy feeling that you already have met this woman of brittle charm and seismic mood swings, and not on a theater stage. For what Ms. Burton, her director, Nicholas Martin, and a finely attuned supporting cast have done is to shed a harsh and revealing light on an enigma usually shrouded in glamorous shadows. And suddenly this willful, destructive woman looks alarmingly familiar. You may even have been seated next to her at dinner last night, some charming Manhattan trophy wife with a chip on her shoulder and a chilly laugh, and recoiled a bit without knowing why.
In a way, Ms. Burton has done for Hedda what Simon Russell Beale did for Hamlet in his recent appearance in the role here: she has scaled a titanic figure down to accessible human dimensions without trivializing her. For once, we are allowed to understand and perhaps identify with the contradictory impulses that jerk Hedda Gabler through life. We may even -- and of course she would loathe this -- feel sorry for her.
The mythologizing of Hedda Gabler began when she first set foot on European stages in the last years of the 19th century. ''Bigness and pettiness are so blended in Hedda's character that she belongs neither to hell nor heaven but to earth,'' wrote the Norwegian critic Henrik Jaeger. A London writer for The Pictorial World was less forgiving: ''The play is simply a bad escape of moral sewage-gas. . . . Hedda's soul is a-crawl with the foulest passions of humanity.''
In the 20th century -- when wickedness, especially of the neurotic variety, began to seem cosmopolitan and sexy -- the role of Hedda became a magnet for slinky, erotically charged actresses past their first youths, from Nazimova to Annette Bening. When Eva Le Gallienne played the part in 1927, she was compared to ''a lean, aristocratic and intangibly evil cat.'' It is a vision of Hedda that has persisted.
So when it was announced that Ms. Burton would be trying on the role, few imagined that it would be a comfortable fit. Ms. Burton had established herself as a solid, flexible actress with wry comic timing and a round-cheeked country-girl glow. She seemed to possess little of the charisma that burned so steadily from her famous father, Richard Burton.
Yet Ms. Burton clearly has her share of her father's actorly intelligence, and she brings it to bear on an interpretation that Richard Burton would definitely appreciate: that of a soul so perpetually thwarted that she has become electric with disappointment. This Hedda holds on to what Henry James called her ''infinite perversity,'' but it is now possible to understand its sources.
It is in fact Hedda's rabid dissatisfication -- with the provinicial town in which she finds herself, with her grand underfurnished house, with her new husband, the boyish academic George Tesman (Michael Emerson) -- that sets the tone and pace of Mr. Martin's galloping production. From the moment Hedda steps into the parlor of her new house, fresh from her honeymoon abroad, you see Ms. Burton assessing and condemning everything in her line of vision.
Cheeks sucked in, lips folded, eyes gimlet-sharp, she has a definite air of disapproving authority in Michael Krass's stately peignoir, an attitude achieved no doubt through long sessions with a looking glass. You can imagine that attitude slipping, though, and it will. There is something small about this Hedda, a feeling that she is not so much an outsized anachronism in this convention-ridden world but a cracked product of it. That she knows this about herself is, more than anything else, what damns her. She is, as she says at one point, with a laugh that scrapes the nerves, ''a total coward.''
The harshness of that laugh, which erupts janglingly throughout the evening, suggests that Hedda's sardonic intelligence is by no means a blessing. It allows Hedda to see that not only is she a prisoner of a circumscribed environment but her own jailer as well. The daughter of a local hero of a general, whose portrait broods judgmentally over every scene, Hedda wants grandeur out of life, but not at the expense of being an outcast. She is, despite herself, the ultimate bourgeoise.
Ms. Burton's Hedda, after all, instinctively strikes hand-holding poses of conjugal happiness with her husband whenever a new visitor arrives. She can enjoy flirty badinage with the family friend Judge Brack (Harris Yulin), until the possibility of actual sexual contact hovers. ''Sorry, not interested,'' she says with a brusque, full-stop flatness. Learning of the marital problems of an old schoolmate, Thea Elvsted (Jennifer Van Dyck), she practically screams her astonishment, ''You mean, you're leaving your marriage?''
Such sudden tears in the smooth, dry social fabric of Hedda's hostess persona always come as both shocks and illuminations in this production. On one hand, there's Hedda the sly, detached manipulator, the master of the leveling, often enjoyable quip. But when the idea of sex -- illicit or otherwise -- social disgrace or, above all, the prospect of her imminent motherhood is raised, she loses control. The rhythmic back-and-forth between self-containment and disintegration is beautifully staggered, as it accelerates into explosion.
Though Alexander Dodge's perfectly realized set is high-ceilinged and open, you can physically feel Hedda perceiving it as a prison, as she frantically paces the room, purposelessly rearranging furniture. It's as if she's trying to conjure a world of sumptuousness that will never exist. And the supporting cast, far from being passive pieces in Hedda's chess game, suggest solid, unpassable obstacles.
Mr. Emerson, the brilliant Oscar Wilde of ''Gross Indecency,'' brings a perpetual, myopic boyishness to Tesman, and for all his infatuation with his bride, this Tesman is firmly resistant to her more extravagant demands. There's an unbending middle-class spine in both Tesman and his Aunt Julia (wonderfully played by Angela Thornton) that will always quietly trump Hedda's flashier imperialism.
Mr. Yulin's superb Judge Brack is a more sinister embodiment of the status quo, stalking Hedda sexually with a slow, arrogant patience. And David Lansbury's bravely unheroic Eilert Lovborg, the man whose destiny Hedda would rule, has a ragged, naïve fierceness that both directly contradicts Hedda's loftier dreams for him and hints at the carnal dimension that fascinates and repels her.
Since I first saw this production in Boston in January, Ms. Van Dyck has become almost too much Hedda's stooge, in her blond, empty-faced placidity. We should probably see more real terror in the later scenes. And Ms. Burton's withering deadpan delivery is still occasionally too glib. The audience gets in the habit of laughing with her in the first act, and then continues to laugh at such inappropriate moments as when Hedda hands Eilert that fatal pistol.
Yet when else have you seen a ''Hedda Gabler'' that moved with such compelling force and fluency, and that consistently made such sense? Jon Robin Baitz's loosened-up, colloquial translation is perfect for the demystifying sorcery that Ms. Burton and Mr. Martin have worked on Hedda. Liberatingly, you come to think of Hedda not as a sui generis exotic, that evil Scandinavian cat, but as a character with a context and a persuasive raison d'être.
Herman Bang, a Danish contemporary of Ibsen's, pointed out that most of the dramatist's plays ''had been about egotistical men and selfless women.'' Here, he continued, ''was a play about an egotistical woman, and whereas a man's egotism may at least cause him to accomplish much, a woman's merely delivers her into isolation.''
Such were the times. It is accordingly easy to see Hedda as a shrewder, less passive Madame Bovary, stifled by bourgeois boredom, or perhaps a cousin to one of Dreiser's doomed, grasping American heroines. But I also found myself thinking of a more contemporary dramatic creation that Ms. Burton's father had reason to know well, another terminally discontented daughter of a powerful man married to a wimpy academic: the restless, game-playing Martha of ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?''
Martha at least had an appropriate sparring partner with whom she could exercise that poisonous intelligence. Poor Hedda is ultimately all alone, forced to realize that her life would be a sort of self-torturing solitary confinement. In this production, you can definitely feel the walls closing in on Ms. Burton's Hedda. But contrary to the rules of physics, this fiery creature burns only brighter as the oxygen dwindles.