One doesn’t often associate the Beach Boys with bourgeois angst, but it’s Brian Wilson who gives voice to the heroine’s sufferings in Thomas Ostermeier’s striking rendition of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. “The world could show nothing to me/So what good would living do me,” Wilson chirps lugubriously as the stage revolves and other characters busy themselves. That such a soundtrack should accompany Hedda’s suicide—and that the suicide, seen by BAM audiences so many times before, should still surprise—gives the lie to any insistence that Ibsen just wasn’t made for these times.
Ostermeier’s modernizing touch doesn’t end with the soundscape. He and his dramaturg, Marius von Mayenburg, have fashioned a very up-to-date script from Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel’s new translation. Talk of vine leaves and burning hair has ebbed, replaced by references to laptops and strip clubs. Nina Wetzel has costumed the cast in covetable outfits, and Jan Pappelbaum has designed a luxe interior replete with mirrors, glass, and highly polished floors.
That degree of reflection extends to the portrayal of Ibsen’s characters. Ostermeier and his cast have rendered them thoughtfully, albeit with some surprising alterations. As in most productions, Hedda’s husband, Tesman (the excellent Lars Eidinger), is played with boyish gaucherie. But the unctuous Brack (Jörg Hartmann) is surprisingly seductive, while the disreputable Lovborg (Kay Bartholomäus Schulze) is almost epicene. New York theatergoers haven’t lacked for noteworthy Heddas in recent years, from Elizabeth Marvel’s fierce turn in Ivo van Hove’s production to Carolyn Baumler’s woozy portrayal to Cate Blanchett’s imperious rendering on the same BAM stage last spring. But young actress Katharina Schüttler easily makes the role her own in a wonderfully petulant performance. The pixieish Schüttler, all slouched shoulders and angled hips, offers Hedda as a party girl who’s run out of invitations. She passes much of the performance in bratty disenchantment. But when she breaks from it—shooting her pistol at vases of flowers or taking a hammer to Lovborg’s laptop—she’s terrifying.
Hedda claims she has one great talent, “boring myself to death.” Happily, it’s not one of Ostermeier’s chief skills. Though the play does straggle some in the last half hour—its final moments notably excepted— Ostermeier’s staging well sustains an intermissionless two hours. If his use of video and his rotating set do somewhat suggest a child delighting in his toys, these technical flourishes invariably intensify the piece’s tone. Good vibrations, indeed.