Thursday, February 15, 2007

Ibsen Valentine

photo: Michele Perella

YES, ST. VALENTINE'S DAY is over for the year. This is next-day journalism. I live in the country; we read yesterday's paper at breakfast. So I got to thinking about Couples, and What We Did On Valentine's Day.

We went to see the opening of ACT's production of Hedda Gabler, is what we did.

Ibsen't play about a neurotic woman unhappily married to a bland academic is probably not the right vehicle for the occasion. It reminds me of the French government's campaign, a few decades back, to instil reverence for the glories of the Gallic culture in every French new household; among the national gifts to each newlywed couple was a copy of Madame Bovary. Not A Good Idea.

I'll tell you about the show in a few moments, but first let me think about couples a bit. Yesterday I bought a half gallon of milk (Straus, of course), at a little market in Santa Rosa, and the nice young man at the cash register (do they still call them that?) looked at me a little dubiously, I thought, and then said in a friendly manner Have a nice Valentine's Day. Thanks, I said; you too; I hope it works out well. He looked at me a little more closely and said Oh it will; you don't need a girl to have a nice Valentine's Day.

Well I wouldn't know, I said; I have a girl; I've had this girl fifty years.

There we are above, on a fine summer day at least a decade ago, at Grindstone Joe's, where we used to go every summer for a party at Bumps and Bea's boat, an exercise in alliteration that's always pleased me. Dear Bumps was a fine man, handsome and capable; a kitchen architect is how I think of him professionally -- he supervised the installation of the kitchen when we rebuilt the Café at Chez Panisse after the fire.

But like so many fine and fascinating men and women Bumps was much more than his professional self; he was active and generous, thoughtful and intelligent, kind and sympathetic. He loved to have a bunch of us from the restaurant up to his boat every August, where he always grilled a dozen chickens (or two) and made a fine big loaf of campstove bread.

Alas poor Bumps passed away last year — or was it two years ago? — and we haven't seen his handsome Bea since, though we hear from her from time to time. Our own fiftieth anniversary approaches, and I think of the couples who no longer are couples, whether for death or divorce; how lucky we are to have one another; how sad yet apparently certain it is that others no longer do; and what's to be done?

Hedda Gabler would have none of this: sentimentality was not for her. Drama, yes; sentimentality, no. The metaphorical Vine Leaves In The Hair — the sense of heroism and nobility that came with a Great Gesture — meant more to her than domestic comfort. Some of see domestic comfort as nourishing, supportive, pleasant; the daily context that enables individual productivity. (I'm sure that's what Tesman had in mind, in Hedda Gabler.

Others, though, seem to think of it as a trap, stifling the individual, draining his resources (or hers, to stay to the point), a distraction from the truly glorious possibilities of an individual human life.

So it was useful, finally, to see Hedda Gabler on St. Valentine's Day; and particularly in the company of another couple, friends who like us find nourishment in their domestic couplehood for the flourishing of their individual gifts and enthusiasms. (Writing, in this case; but also extraprofessional pursuits: travel, birding, gardening...)

Well. To the "review." We saw the production from the very top balcony, so our perspective on the production is not ideal; but physically it seemed quite effective -- a tight, obsessive drawing room to suggest the stuffy opulence of the provincial bourgeois life Hedda could not face. Fine set, slightly removing the play from our own time, as if placing it on a Petri dish. Effective costumes.

The cast: René Augesen was a brilliant Hedda, flinging herself about the stage, mercurial in her verbal outbursts, simultaneously fragile and abrupt, complex and mysterious, and handsome as the Devil — indeed, her portrayal of the role suggested that Hedda perhaps is the Devil. If Finnerty Steeves was not quite up to her brilliance as an actress, in the role of Thea Elvsted, well, perhaps that's appropriate: the role can run away with the show, and Lockwood kept it focussed and clear without pushing it too far forward.

Anthony Fusco was a fine, witless, sympathetic, enthusiastic, ultimately dull Jorgen Tesman — the role's not terribly rewarding, I'd think, but absolutely central; the play might almost have been called Jorgen Tesman; that would have made the play Ibsen's only comedy. (Oscar Wilde would perhaps have done this.)

I wondered about Jack Willis's version of Commissioner Brack, at first; drawling and stodgily slimy, not the male Malevolence that counterbalance's Hedda's Evil in many productions. (Oregon Shakespeare's fine production a few years ago comes to mind.) I think he does throw away the crushing final line of the play, robbing this sudden moment of some of its horror (but leaving quite enough of that horror to nail down Ibsen's masterpiece). But the Commissioner's minor-league nastiness does seem appropriate; it's one of the key components of the drab mundane society that sets Hedda off.

Sharon Lockwood was affecting and credible as Aunt Juliane, and Barbara Oliver was wonderful as the maid Berte; both did much to anchor the production in its time-and-place and, more important, its mood.

That leaves the difficult, perhaps impossible role: Ejlert Lovborg, the brilliant, poetic, weak genius whose failures and impossibilties inspire Hedda to her own insanity. Stephen Barker Turner took on this demanding assignment, and seemd — on opening night, remember — a little bit tentative. Attractive; capable; sympathetic; but a little bit tentative.

I think Ibsen puts a bit of himself in this role; a bit of the impossibility of being an Ibsen in the Norway of his day. The weakest moment in the play is always his precipitous relapse — Lovborg's, I mean, not Ibsen's — into Old Demon Rum, or whatever it is Hedda tempts him with in that crucial moment. I've never seen an actor really bring this off: but maybe that's meant to show the impossibility of ever really finding Vine Leaves In One's Hair.

All in all, a wonderful production and performance.
Henrik Ibsen: Hedda Gabler, directed by Richard E.T. White for the American Conservatory Theater; runs through March 11.
* * *

En route to the city we stopped, the four of us, for a Valentine's Day dinner at 868 Kitchen in Novato, where between five and six o'clock you can have a three-course fifteen-dollar dinner quite nicely planned and served — but not, it turned out, on February 14. My fault: I should have known.

We sat down to a special fixed-price four-course menu, $65, with three choices of first course, five of second, four of plat principal. I had
Lettuce salad with grapefruit, cucumber, pickled onion, watermelon radish, avocado, bacon, and Meyer dressing
Ahi tuna tartare with shallots, chives, truffled ponzu, seaweed salad, and nori crips
Filet mignon wrapped in pancetta with potatoes, broccolini, braised cioppolini, sauce Bearnaise

Others had lobster bisque or endive-beet salad, canapés of libster, trout, caviar, and smoked salmon, and lobster ravioli with black ear and hedgehog mushrooms; and they were as delighted as I.

My tuna tartare was particularly memorable. Everything on this menu looked, on the menu, too complicated and distracted, but proved on palate to be perfectly balanced yet pointed and stimulating. A perfect Valentine from a kitchen. We'll be back; but we look forward to the $15 specials!

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