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Austin Shakespeare’s ‘Hedda’ is Ibsen for today’s America

Andrew J. Friedenthal, Special to the American-Statesman
Chuck Winkler and Gwendolyn Kelso star in Austin Shakespeare's "Hedda." [Contributed by Bret Brookshire]

The titular protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” is arguably one of the first fully realized female characters to appear on the dramatic stage. First premiering in 1891, the play is an attempt to explore the inner life of a woman bored with the constraints and expectations of married life.

The issues that Hedda faces are timeless, making them rife for adaptation and reinterpretation into the present day. That’s why Austin Shakespeare’s artistic director, Ann Ciccolella, has penned a new adaptation of the play — titled “Hedda,” updated to a 1950s setting and influenced by Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” — which runs Feb. 21-March 8 at the Long Center for the Performing Arts’ Rollins Studio Theatre.

We spoke with Ciccolella to find out more about how “Hedda” both reflects and breaks with tradition.

American Statesman: What makes now the right time for a new adaptation of “Hedda Gabler”?

Ann Ciccolella: Today, although many people complain of being all too busy, when they take a pause they oftentimes feel a bit isolated and lost. Hedda is a legendary character who feels unbearably stuck in a dull, conventional life. Ibsen’s 19th-century setting can mislead us to think Hedda’s dilemma is in the past, but great stories are about what it means to be human. Transcending a particular time or place, like Hedda, we can find ourselves directed by what others expect of us, rather than what we personally value deeply. We want the audience to explore the story of this fascinating woman and discover what it says to us today.

Why did you choose to adapt the play yourself rather than using an existing translation?

We wanted a 2020 script to make Hedda’s world feel American. Versions even by American translators tend to keep some of language that is mired in the British-isms of the play’s original translations. The season before last, we produced our own original adaptation of (Anton) Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” and we were encouraged because the performers felt so directly connected with audiences.

In what ways is this production inspired by Betty Friedan's 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique"?

Betty Friedan interviewed women from all over the U.S., most of whom were homemakers in the 1950s. What Friedan discovered was that women were feeling alienated, depressed and lost. She called this phenomenon “the problem which has no name.” Hedda is a charismatic personality, but she is clearly lost, especially in her role as a new wife. Today both men and women often feel trapped by society’s expectations of what we should be, how we should behave and what we ought to look like. Today’s media images, especially in projecting women, still present a superficial beauty. In 2020, teenage girls and young women out of college, as well as older women, are still prompted to be concerned with appearance. When juxtaposed with Hedda, we may recognize ourselves beside her in her beautiful cage.

How does the 1950s setting of this production relate to both Ibsen’s time period and our own?

These days, we have become fascinated by the mid-20th century, perhaps searching to find the roots of where we are today. “Mad Men” makes us feel like we have come “a long way, baby” — but have we? Some of today’s surface beauty — in, for instance, the sculpted of bodies of “Lululemon ladies” and buff men — may still be at a distance from authentic self-esteem. Ibsen knew that, for both men and women, the individual’s acting on his or her own choice is critical to a flourishing life.

How do all of these choices of adaptation and setting differ from more traditional productions of “Hedda Gabler”?

Through a fresh and imaginative production, we hope audiences will find “Hedda” inviting and intriguing. The play is always gripping, because it penetrates the inner world of each of the characters, but we hope through our new “Hedda” to creatively relate to personal issues that many of us face today. We honor Ibsen as a master of suspense, psychological mystery and personal revelation by keeping his classic work alive. After every performance, we have a 10-minute “talk back” with audience and actors. This show should prompt especially lively conversations. We believe it’s always the right time for a great play.



When: Opens Friday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, with additional 7:30 p.m. show March 4, through March 8

Where: Rollins Studio Theatre at Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W Riverside Drive

Tickets: $18-$46

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