Ibsen With Robots

Heddatron is an over-the-top, mind-bending, jaw-dropping piece of masterful camp. Everything about playwright Elizabeth Meriwether's new play is brilliant. Produced by Les Freres Corbusier, this outstanding production boasts an extremely original and well-written script as well as a magnificent cast, inspired direction, and flawless design elements, all of which combine to make this the must-see show of the season. In short, it is pure theatrical magic (with robots!) that leaves its audience slightly delirious and breathlessly wanting more. In suburban Michigan, Jane (Carolyn Baeumler), a depressed and pregnant housewife, reads Hedda Gabler. As she folds laundry and cleans her gun, she finds solace in Ibsen's words, identifying with the title character's situation. Weeks later, Jane's 12-year-old daughter Nugget (Spenser Leigh) prepares to give a report to her sixth-grade class on Ibsen and the "well-made play."

Meanwhile, in 19th-century Germany, a melancholy Ibsen (Daniel Larlham) plays with dolls as his sadistic wife (Nina Hellman), a severe woman who refers to her husband only as "Ibsen!," gleefully calls his manhood into question. Back in modern-day Michigan, mild-mannered Rick (Gibson Frazier) and his arms-smuggling brother Cubby (Sam Forman) prepare to rescue Rick's wife Jane, who has been kidnapped by…robots.

Images of a news report about the robot abduction assault the audience from every angle. Ibsen frantically works on his new play, pausing only to battle his loathed enemy, the sexually depraved August Strindberg (Ryan Karels), and to find momentary happiness with his slutty kitchen maid, Else (Julie Lake).

Nugget presents her report, advising her classmates that if they don't like Hedda Gabler, it's probably because they saw it on a bad night or are too stupid to understand it. Rick and Cubby, armed with an arsenal of illegal guns, head to the rain forest lair of the robots. Deep in the forest, Jane performs Hedda Gabler over and over again as her kidnappers, Tesman and Lovborg (named after characters in Hedda Gabler) and their fellow robots, swirl about her. That the four story lines converge during a group chorus of Bonnie Tyler's unrequited-love anthem "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is just further proof of this work's campy brilliance.

A mixture of wry observations, hilarious jokes, social commentary, and literary criticism, Meriwether's writing is sublime. Through Jane's story, Ibsen's imagined history, and the robots that tie everything together, Meriwether expertly deconstructs Ibsen and his play. Alex Timbers's direction successfully weaves together all the story lines, guiding his entire cast to polished, accomplished performances.

The acting is also exceptional. Leading the ensemble is the delightful Leigh. As Nugget, she holds the play together with her natural acting style and deadpan delivery, showcasing a talent well beyond her young age. Carolyn Baeumler mixes comedy and drama as the suicidal Jane, fully and often hilariously committing to each bizarre situation, particularly those involving her robot captors. She turns in a tender and heartbreaking performance.

Hellman stomps about the stage screaming "Ibsen!" and delivering putdowns with bull's-eye precision, stealing every scene she's in. As the lusty Else, Lake is perpetually surprised and clueless while delivering her lines with a high-pitched, helium-infused voice that provokes many laughs. In Lake's capable hands, Else's monologue about her mother's brutal rape is, surprisingly, a comedic tour de force.

Larlham comically captures the self-aggrandizing soul of the tortured artist; his conflicted Ibsen is a man more concerned with writing about life than living it. As the bikini-underwear-clad Strindberg, Karels hysterically swaggers about the stage, full machismo bravado on display as he conquers every woman in his path. Karels is the perfect foil to Larlham's neutered Ibsen.

Forman attacks the role of wannabe mercenary Cubby with psychotic abandon, earning many laughs as his insane kill-the-robots-scheme spirals out of control. As the quiet center of the play, Frazier appropriately underplays each moment, imbuing the clueless Rick with a dim uncertainty about what is happening or why his wife is so unhappy. Like Tesman in Hedda, Rick simply loves her.

The unsung heroes of Heddatron are the robots. Designed by Meredith Finkelstein and Cindy Jeffers, they perfectly capture the personalities of their Ibsenian counterparts. The Lovborg robot is hunky and brooding, Tesman is dumpy, and the others—well, they should be seen for maximum effect. The robots provide some of the funniest moments and are so well executed, they achieve lifelike dimensions.

In a city bursting with theatrical options, Heddatron is a welcome relief. Not settling for the status quo or uninspired mediocrity of so many Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, Heddatron dares to be more. And while the flash of the robots is certainly alluring, the production's real magic is all human. Meriwether, Timbers, Les Freres Corbusier, and the exceptional cast and designers have given the New York theater scene a remarkable gift.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post