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EVIDENCE ROOM and FABULOUS MONSTERS
present
SPEED-HEDDA
Based upon the play by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Robert A. Prior

Cast

Hedda - Mark Bray
George/Eliot - Bennett Schneider
Ms. Elvestead/Aunt Julie - Tim Dunaway
Dr. Brock - Kirk Wilson
Berte, the Maid - Robert Navarret
Man in Black - Jacob Higgins
Man in Black - Marvin Solomon


Director - Robert A. Prior
Set & Costume Designer - Robert A. Prior
Lighting Designer - Jerry Browning
Sound Design - John Zalewski
Choreography - Carol Cetrone
Videography - Rush Riddle and Marvin Solomon

Producers - Bart DeLorenzo & Ames Ingham
Dramaturg/Assistant Director - Kevin Hincker
Production Manager - Kendra Rickert
Production Supervisor - Christian Leffler

Graphic Design - Colleen Wainwright
Photographer - Rob Nava

August 12 - October 1, 2000


Reviews

LA Weekly

I’ll tell you one thing Speed-Hedda isn’t: another drag show hung on the bones of an old movie, replete with cheap gags and half-assed makeup efforts. We’ve seen enough of these to quickly spot the species – the kind of show whose lead sashays onstage with thick rectangular eyebrows and a bottle of gin to suggest Joan Crawford. The kind whose dialogue likewise suggests comedy by the number of times the words queen, fairy and drag get worked into the repartee – loudly stressed, just in case we didn’t get the author’s playful wit. And the kind of evening whose studied amateurism and paper-moon production values make L.A. drag theater a once-a-year experience.

No, these ain’t Speed-Hedda. Adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler by director Robert A. Prior, this all-male, Evidence Room/Fabulous Monsters co-production is a smart comic ballet that, for 80 minutes, sweeps away our apprehensions about drag theater. That Ibsen is the source material should alone alert us to the showís erudite novelty, but Prior does more than tart up with modern dress and mores a bitchy persona taken from the high art of the 19th century. His undertaking, as caustically funny as it is, also is clearly a literary valentine from someone so intimately acquainted with Hedda Gabler that his divertissement contains as much homage as comedy, bending Marxís aphorism to say that what appears as tragedy the first time around can return as camp.

Prior moves the action stateside to 1962 – that apogean year of Camelot and suburbia before the buckling of the American consensus, the year that Kennedy stared down the Soviets and the last summer the New York Yankees were invincible. It was also a time when the American woman, worldly yet still submissive, had supposedly been emancipated by the laboratories of democracy – by the Pill, and by the ’mother’s little helpers’ that kept female depression and calories in check.

This is the world of Hedda (Mark Brey) and her academician husband, George Tesman (Bennett Schneider), whom we meet as they’re seated on a plane, returning to their provincial home, physically so close to one another yet mentally worlds apart. They are greeted at the airport (nicely rendered on video by Rush Riddle and Marvin Solomon) by George’s nattering old Aunt Julie (Tim Dunaway).

From here on, it’s not too difficult to discern the contours of Ibsen’s 1890 drama: Hedda, a rebellious if manipulative and malevolent spirit, feels trapped by her bookworm spouse and the claustrophobia of small-town life. She brightens with the news that an old flame, the dashing yet alcoholic Eliot Loevborg (Schneider), has appeared in town to promote his new book and, possibly, to compete with George for a job. Meanwhile, Hedda takes Eliot's gullible ex-mistress, Thea (Dunaway), into her confidence in order to use her as a pawn in a game of sexual wills with Eliot, while making herself teasingly alluring to her friend and drug supplier, Dr. Brock (Kirk Wilson).

While the highlights of Ibsen’s plot emerge more or less intact here, a second, parallel show unfolds in the over-the-top, cross-dressed environment created by Prior and his cast. The heart of this adjacent world is Brey’s performance as Hedda, a tall, slender figure in black who sprints away with the show, from pantomiming an exercise in reckless driving, to realigning his character’s jaw from the effects of too much speed. Whether toying with the plodding Thea's unrequited love for Eliot, or spinning Les Baxter and Yma Sumac platters from a hi-fi alcove that resembles an execution chamber, Brey embodies the brittle persona of a woman headed toward a tragic destiny.

The actor and the show’s capable ensemble are expertly guided by Prior and backed by a fine technical team whose work includes John Zalewski’s crisp, start-on-a-dime sound design, Jerry Browning’s murky lighting and Carol Cetrone’s fluid choreography. Prior’s costumes accomplish something rare in cross-dressed shows by giving the actors enough to convey the characters’ era and personalities without burying them under a pile of outrageous period clothes.

For all its originality, there is much that is familiar about Prior’s send-up, which rests upon that time-honored focus of drag comedy, the out-of-control female. Like many another drag heroine, Prior’s Hedda is pulled between sluttiness and (to use a term of the time) frigidity; the resulting tension produces a woman ever on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a condition worsened by the fact that Hedda skis over the adversity of modern life on a prescription of amphetamines. The speed dispensed by the obliging Dr. Brock (Hedda has no appetite for Miltown, Librium or any of the other tranks then in vogue) only intensifies her manic laughter and impulsive acts of cruelty.

As with other works of the high-heeled transvestite genre, the ’women’ in Speed-Hedda physically dominate their male counterparts onstage, none more so than in the case of Brey whenever he towers over the diminutive Schneider, who, nevertheless, essays a good contrast in the dual roles of the mousy medievalist George and the leather-clad Eliot.

Finally, it is Prior’s chosen time period that links his work with such stage musicals as Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party and John Waters’ Hairspray (which opens next year on Broadway), as well as a sexio-political comedy such as Doug Field’s Down South, which premiered in L.A. this spring and which, like Speed-Hedda, swims in a boozy haze of Latin cocktail-hour music.

The early 1960s presents these happy campers with an inviting frontier to explore, for besides forming a borderland where the twilight of Eisenhower puritanism met the dawn of love-generation experimentation, these years also saw the last vestiges of the girdle-and-glove formality so essential to the drag aesthetic. This bouffanted epoch offers Prior a psychological ecology in which not only Hedda but America itself seems torn between moral correctness and libidinous chaos, teetering on the edge of repression and impulse. In other words, Prior places his farce in a time in which people could still be embarrassed.

Even though, as mentioned earlier, we may be certain about what Speed-Hedda isn’t – and may enjoy it for just that – we don’t necessarily know what it represents beyond a clever camp outing, a problem that may rest with the show’s antagonist. Hedda Gabler, after all, is a more problematic figure than Nora Helmer of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House because of her rather cruel and selfish personality. Whereas Nora’s revolt against husband and family can be comfortably converted into the terms of modern liberalism, Hedda’s actions are more the impulses of a hedonist than of a feminist, making our embrace of her tentative at best. Whenever our eyes connect that missing manuscript of Loevborg’s unpublished book with the Tesmans’ fireplace (at least, in traditional stagings of Hedda Gabler), something kicks inside our stomachs and we begin to turn against Hedda, for she is no longer a threatening ’castrator’ but a potential infanticide, as Loevborg’s maternal descriptions of his lost work imply.

Nevertheless, Speed-Hedda is a dark, funny and intelligent work whose mood swings approximate those of its fated heroine. The serious side of Prior’s effort arrives at the very end, when, after Hedda has made a shocking decision, the hi-fi’s turntable gets stuck repeatedly playing a single word from Camelot’s "If Ever I Would Leave You," and suddenly the moment shifts from Hedda Gabler to Ibsen’s Ghosts, from Hedda to Oswald – a moment of unbearable melancholy in which the two can be seen as brother and sister.

– Steven Mikulan


Los Angeles Times

The world’s great works of dramatic literature ask more questions than they answer. They fire our collective imagination with tantalizing ambiguities, not pat declarations or easy thesis points.

That said, here’s a certainty: Hedda Gabler needed to get out more. All that stifling late 19th century Norwegian air, those joyless chats with her husband’s doting aunt – someone wanna open a window, please?

Someone has. Under the tastefully demented eye of Robert Prior, the gender-bent troupe Fabulous Monsters has given Henrik Ibsen’s antiheroine a one-way ticket to 1962 America. And Hedda’s still toting her dad's gun.

Now at the Evidence Room, Speed-Hedda unfolds in the era of mambos on the hi-fi, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway, The Chapman Report on movie screens and fistfuls of amphetamines coursing through the nervous systems of wives everywhere. It’s a pretty funny 75-minute redux of Ibsen’s masterwork, offering a drag Hedda (Mark Brey) cranked on uppers. When she’s really flying, she dances around the den to the manic vocal stylings of Peruvian songbird Yma Sumac.

As Hedda, who favors the smart black cocktail dress, Brey towers over his cohorts, which is part of the gag. Another part is the music. Key conspiratorial conversations – surprisingly faithful to the Ibsen text – take place while the characters share a mambo or cha-cha, choreographed neatly by Carol Cetrone. (John Zalewski’s sound design is a plus.) Adapter-director Prior has a nifty idea going for him here, though his adaptation sometimes gets stuck halfway between fidelity to the original and its own kitschy realm. He has taken Ibsen’s 1890 landmark and used it for early ’60s B-movie fodder. Hedda oversees a snake pit of jealousy and passion. The rivalry between her staggeringly boring academic husband (Bennett Schneider) and the seductive visionary Lovborg (Schneider again) is like a square-off between Wally Cox and Sal Mineo.

As played by Tim Dunaway, whose Nancy Sinatra wig resembles something Dairy Queen might market to entire families, Thea is a walking, flouncing sight gag. Staying "down at the Y," she serves the same function here as in Ibsen – hopelessly devoted to Lovborg, nervous around Hedda. Judge Brack, Ibsen’s blackmailing authority figure, here becomes friendly Doctor Brock (Kirk Wilson), who keeps Hedda stoked on pharmaceuticals.

Many clever things here. Still, Speed-Hedda never really hits the camp heights. For a show about a woman out of control, the pacing is on the sluggish side; the transitions don’t zip as they should. Even within its chosen, deliberately cheesy parameters, most of the acting’s just adequate (Brey stands out). We can’t all be Charles Busch or John "Lypsinka" Epperson – if we were, well, the fashion wars would be grueling – but drag humor is like any other kind of humor. The best practitioners can wig out (literally and figuratively), go broad and cheap, and still surprise us with offhand line readings, weird little vocal frills. Overall the performance effects in Speed-Hedda are on the obvious side.

To Prior’s credit, Speed-Hedda hits some effective bittersweet chords near the end. Prior and company play Hedda’s suicide (scored by "If Ever I Would Leave You," from the Camelot cast album) much as Ibsen did: As a sobering, sudden slap in the other characters’ faces. "Everything I touch turns to horse----!!!" wails this Hedda, just before turning on the hi-fi for the last time.

The show itself could use a little of what Hedda’s knocking back. But you find yourself grinning over the better bits a day or two later.

– Michael Phillips


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