By Bill Hirschman
The magic of serendipity: It’s difficult to imagine — without being boxed into it as Miami Theater Company was — how an artistic director would thematically put together a season encompassing Hedda Gabler and The Seven Year Itch.
Certainly, MTC founder Stephanie Ansin and collaborator Fernando Calzadilla never considered in advance pairing Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 proto-feminist classic drama and George Axelrod’s 1952 rarely-revived social comedy about a man dreaming of philandering, best known as a film.
But in MTC’s first all-adult season, both plays will be performed on the same set with resonances uncovered and underscored by Ansin and Calzadilla.
“One’s a man trapped in a woman’s world and one’s a woman trapped in a man’s world,” Ansin said earlier this month. “Even though it’s different roles, different worlds, different time, different periods, it’s the same conflict and themes in different genres.”
She explained, “We’re talking about Hedda as the original Desperate Housewife and Richard as the original Mad Man…. The overlaps are Hedda and Richard who is the protagonist of The Seven Year Itch have both made a series of choices about getting married and having families and surrendering to domesticity and, for different reasons, they have different extremes of dissatisfaction.”
Both Hedda, opening Saturday, and Itch, opening in February, will get the MTC treatment, meaning a highly-detailed and unique adaptation ranging from the words in the script to the stunning visual and aural aspects that the company has built its reputation upon.
The show stars Jessica Farr as the independent woman trapped in a loveless marriage, Gregg Weiner as her husband George, Paul Tei as her true love Eilert, Diana Garle as the shy Thea, John Dennison as the powerful Judge Brack, Kate Young as Aunt Juliana and Kitt Marsh as the maid Berta.
The collision of the pieces was accidental. Last spring, Ansin and company were still trying to get the rights to do Itch, which she had staged for her MFA at Columbia in 2001. But the rights were slow in coming and audition season was looming. This was especially difficult for MTC, which spends a year, even three years developing a piece.
“We had to have auditions and we couldn’t say we were doing The Seven Year Itch without the rights and (MTC actor) Howard Elfman suggested that I should direct Hedda Gabler,” Ansin recalled.
She initially didn’t jump. She only had read it and studied it during her first all-nighter in college. She had never seen it. But Elfman brought her a translation and said, “ ‘It will drive you crazy.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know who’s going to play Hedda.’ ” Elfman wasn’t fazed. He said, “I know who should play Hedda. You.” Ansin is a risk taker but she demurred, saying she was no actress.
But auditions were closing in, so she finally agreed to hold the auditions for Hedda. “And as soon as we announced that we were doing Hedda, I got the rights to The Seven Year Itch,” she said.
But while watching a Swedish woman audition for Hedda, an idea germinated. “So an hour and a half later (after auditions), I tell Fernando, we could do both on the same set. And he said, Yeah, that would work. I was thinking about that… as if we had been talking to each other in our heads. Immediately, the resonances started unfolding.”
But the clock was ticking away for a company that insists on steeping itself in mountains of academic, stylistic and social research and one of the longest rehearsal periods in the state. Plus, they were now prepping two shows simultaneously, and both are involved in every aspect.
Ansin who leans toward writing and directing, quipped with her quiet dry wit, “It’s our tenth anniversary and I felt ‘Let’s burn out.’ ”
Calzadilla, who leans toward the design elements, said, “It’s the same, just compressed. But we haven’t stopped in a while. We’ve been going, going, going going. We’ve read a thousand books on it. What’s Hedda Gabler, who’s Hedda Gabler, the history of Norway, what were the social conditions of the time — I mean everything we usually do to understand the author in his context, and then how does that resonate with today’s audience and what are the key themes that we want to keep and the ones that we feel are not so relevant.”
That research pays off, he said. For instance, it illuminated that “in 1826 they passed a law to abolish the aristocracy in Norway and the ones that were alive were allowed to keep their privileges for their lifetime, but then the second generation did not.
“So Hedda was brought up as an aristocrat with an aristocrat’s education. All of a sudden when her father dies, she finds herself nowhere with no money, no privileges, no right to an education and she doesn’t know how to do anything, she’s not prepared for that life. And her choices are she either works at a household as a governess, or she goes to the brothel or she marries.”
That explains why the headstrong independent woman weds the stable businessman George Tesman as opposed to real love of her life, the Bohemian poet Eilert Lovborg, thereby trapping her in a spirit-smothering relationship.
“It’s resonant and it’s valid and this coincidence that Desperate Housewives… the main character is the character you don’t see because she’s the character who committed suicide, at the beginning of the show, she’s the one who tells the story. So that resonates a lot with Hedda Gabler” who (spoiler alert if you missed it in high school) commits suicide. “So it’s still a very relevant problem. If a show like Desperate Housewives is so popular today, it means the problems is still there. It hasn’t been solved even though we’re 30 years from the rise of feminism.”
Conflating the two pieces, though, took some intellectual imagination, especially creating a shared sleek Miami Modern two-story set that technically reflects neither original period but which includes an electric piano for Hedda to play but no telephones.
It took Ansin and company a little time to get their bearings in the temporal when and where Hedda was taking place.
Actor “Paul Tei named it Ourway instead of Norway. And it’s in the 20th Century,” Ansin said. “It’s interesting. We thought about updating it with telecommunications but then visiting someone (becomes) not as important. The main thing that happens in the play is that people come to the house to find out what’s going on or to deliver something. If you have a cellphone or text message or normal phone call, that kills it.”
It doesn’t bother Calzadilla at all; it’s a tool that requires the audience to invest their attention as they try to get oriented in Ourway. “You cannot sit back and pass judgment because you don’t have all the information. Information is coming to you in pieces and it’s not always congruent, so you have to figure out.”
Ibsen purists will notice the language is different, thanks to Ansin’s rewriting the dialogue. At one point, Hedda says, “Whatever.”
“We made it speakable today. A lot of the translations are very baroque. Even the contemporary ones where they go in and out of sounding baroque and sounding contemporary. So we tried to make it sound contemporary but not overly colloquial.”
The language is meant to echo the rhythms of what Norwegian is, as they understand it: very efficient, very precise, short sentences, using incomplete sentences as a thought develops.
The two plays continue an evolution in what began nearly 10 years ago as The Playground Theatre, at first travelling the county and then landing in an old art deco movie theater in Miami Shores. The troupe of artists concentrated on highly theatrical and imagistic storytelling for audiences composed primarily of children. Much of its activity were productions attended by Miami-Dade school students bused in under a county program.
But in 2013, it rebranded itself as MTC and, among other projects, began mounting works aimed at adults, notably last season’s Three Sisters, which was mounted with the audience in risers on the stage along with the settings.
This year, MTC is foregoing a children’s production and focusing on the two adult pieces. Both are similar logistically to Three Sisters. A single set takes up all of stage right and a risers taking up stage left with have 74 seats (as opposed to 49 for Three Sisters).
That leaves the large auditorium space empty. “We can’t sell 330 seats for an extended period for 15 shows,” Ansin said. “But we’re growing. As Vershninin (a character in Three Sisters) says, ‘Right now, there are three people like you and one day there’ll be 30 and 100.’ We’re not closing the curtain… Those seats are present so it’s beckoning to the future.”
Hedda Gabler plays Oct. 23-Nov. 16 (two previews) at Miami Theater Center (the former PlayGround Theatre), 9806 NE 2nd Ave., Miami Shores. Performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $35. For information, call (305) 751-9550 or visit www.mtcmiami.org.
MTC will host a panel discussion: “Hedda Gabler, Villain, Victim or Heroine?” at 4 p.m. Nov. 2 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Avenue in Coral Gables.