nytheatre.com review by Robin Reed
February 15, 2006
Where have you heard this word before? Heddatron. Read the science section of the Times? Wired.com? Hold on. Since when did science journals start posting theatre reviews?
Well, the union of these uncommon bedfellows is indeed fitting, at least through next weekend. Yes, in Heddatron, the latest offering from Yaleies-turned-downtown-darlings Les Freres Corbusier, Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabler is cast half with a troupe of remote-controlled robots and half with regular old human actors (who are actually all quite good). Great media candy, of course, but the robot actors have very brief stage time. They are pretty cool—ranging from the Robo-Aunt Julie, who looks like an aluminum silhouette of Grandma’s cameo brooch, to Judge Brack, who is more of a Tonka Truck in a wig and a robe, to a couple that are more like Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot maid. Voiced in voiceovers by members of the cast and controlled by their makers from the wings, their glorious scene was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before on stage. The show, though, does not rely solely on mere spectacle to entertain.
LFC’s mission statement makes note of the fact that one of their tenets is “rigorous academic research”. This play, written by the irreverently funny Elizabeth Meriwether, makes this quite clear. She melds the world of Ibsen’s play with a very interesting take on what Ibsen’s real world might have been like, a fifth-grade research report, a desperate and lost husband and his wacky obsessive brother, and The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil, a book about what might happen when technology advances so far that humans are no longer necessary.
So what is the play about?
The basic premise is that Jane, a pregnant Midwestern Mom, is kidnapped by robots and holed up somewhere in the Ecuadorian jungle. Her husband Rick, a kind of Joe Regular who works at Staples, tries to keep it business-as-usual-even-though-mom-is-pregnant-suicidal-and-kidnapped, for the sake of their daughter Nugget, whose class report serves as our exposition of Ibsen and Hedda Gabler. Rick enlists the aid of his screwball brother, Cubby, to hatch a plan to find and rescue Jane. Cubby sees this as a window to not only his 15 minutes but to tons of loot, so he hires a film student to document the whole thing, which they plan to sell to the networks, book publishers, or whoever else might buy it.
It’s a lot, but in Heddatron, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. We also go back in time for a glimpse of Ibsen’s world around the time he was writing Hedda Gabler. You don’t have to be a Theatre Lit Scholar to enjoy it. The fifth-grader really breaks it down. From Nugget’s report:
Most people don’t know about theater history because it’s not as interesting as regular history. There aren’t any wars. Theater history is made up of people trying to make theater in different ways than the other ways of making theater. Lame. But not as lame as war. Now I will talk about Henrik Ibsen.
Enter, a henpecked Ibsen and his comically shrewish wife, who take us into another world of the play. She snipes at him to eat his dinner rather than play with it and calls him “freak” and when she leaves the room, he consoles himself by playing with dolls, which seems to be how he makes his plays. Daniel Larlham and Nina Hellman each shine in their roles as the Ibsens. Larlham can sport a mean set of sideburns and Hellman, well… I’ve never been more tickled to hear someone call her husband “Freak.”
In Ibsen’s world, we also meet the maid Mrs. Ibsen hires, a lisping, self-proclaimed “kitchen slut” (played by the delightfully dippy Julie Lake), as well as August “Miss Julie” Strindberg (brought to vivid life, and in a Swedish Speedo no less, by Ryan Karels). The rivalry displayed by Ibsen and Strindberg is, I assume, meant to mirror that of Lovborg and Tesman in Hedda. Meriwether’s imagined Ibsen is much funnier than I would ever think the real playwright was.
These worlds then explode apart and that’s where the robots come in. Little bits of Hedda are played out with these remote-controlled thespians, with Carolyn Baeumler’s Jane trapped in the middle. Script in hand, she seems excited and freaked out at the possibility of another world of opportunity. Unfortunately, in the world of the robots, it seems like only Hedda Gabler goes, and any time Jane tries to stray from the script she is immediately forced in by an audio-only “big brother” whose alarm screams “SAY YOUR LINE! SAY YOUR LINE!”
If it all sounds a little chaotic, well, it is. But director Alex Timbers keeps the whole circus under great control and moving at a great clip. Just as soon as you catch your breath from one bit, the next is there for you to savor. A very fashionable-yet-functional set by Cameron Anderson allows for the explosions from one world to the next and back again. The robots were designed by Meredith Finkelstein and Cindy Jeffers. They may not have had the same training and study time as their human counterparts, but they were very exciting to watch just the same.
Although, in this time where it seems like so much is becoming automated, can’t we just keep some things for the people only?