— Photo credit: Emily Cooper
Modern classics were once a specialty of the late lamented Playhouse. But Bob Frazer’s Osimous Theatre proves that you don’t necessarily need a big, formal theatre space and a proscenium stage to reinvigorate the work of Henrik Ibsen, the founding father of modern realism. In a couple of rooms of an elegantly restored Victorian house in Vancouver’s West End, audiences of only 20 at a time get up close and extremely personal with an ensemble of terrific actors and the emotionally charged characters of Ibsen’s great Hedda Gabler.
Built in 1893 and restored in period style, Roedde House serves as a ready-made set for the 1890s Norwegian home of newlyweds Hedda (Anna Cummer) and George Tesman (Craig Erickson). They are a mismatched couple if ever there was one. A dull, fussy scholar, Tesman has no clue about Hedda’s insatiable desire to live large. She’s also severely repressed, terrified of scandal and trapped by her domesticity. She can barely move in the constrained space of the crowded little Roedde House rooms—a perfect correlative for her life.
Hedda’s frustrations express themselves in a flirtation with slimy Judge Brack (Derek Metz) and in destructive attempts to manipulate other people’s lives. When her old flame, alcoholic genius Eilert Lovborg (Aslam Husain), shows up with his new muse, Hedda’s former schoolmate Thea (Dawn Petten), Hedda’s jealousy explodes in tightly contained rage and a plot that ends in a series of brilliant bitter ironies.
When audience members are literally only inches away, the actors have to be totally focused and honest. This cast never wavers. Practically strait-jacketed in Connie Hosie’s lovely period dresses, her hair wound so tightly that her scalp must ache, Anna Cummer powerfully internalizes Hedda’s anger and anguish, showing emotion through her eyes like a film actor in close-up. Erickson creates a remarkably expressive, good-natured, almost criminally oblivious Tesman whose eyebrows seem to have a life of their own. Husain’s dark, intense, explosive Lovborg makes us understand why the women, and even Tesman, go gaga over him.
For the audience it’s both thrilling and disconcerting to be so close to the actors. You feel like a voyeur, eavesdropping on the characters’ most private moments. At one point I found myself sitting on a couch next to Hedda as she whispered with Lovborg. You can’t help being involved and engaged.
You also can’t help feeling a little like a sheep as director Frazer personally shepherds you from room to room to make space for the actors. Plus you have to stand for much of the two-hour show. But these are small prices to pay for a wonderful intimate theatre experience.