Have Gun, Will Travail

Theater Rule #206: Never believe the hype about shows shipped in from California, especially from Los Angeles. Maybe the dominance of the film and TV industries there leads theater audiences to overprize their marginalized art form. Perhaps the L.A. scene is just your basic small pond, where any half-decent play achieves an inflated reputation. Whatever. Years of theatergoing have taught me that West Coast laurels often mean East Coast blues.

Take Speed Hedda, a drag version of Hedda Gabler produced by L.A.’s Fabulous Monsters Performance Group (La MaMa). Adapted and directed by the troupe’s founder, Robert Prior, Speed Hedda shifts the Ibsen classic to 1962, Hedda now a rich L.A. type dressed in pseudo Chanel. Ibsen’s basic plot is intact, though significantly trimmed and augmented with cars and a hi-fi set. Actor Mark Brey plays Hedda, lipsticked and high of cheekbone, leading the unhappy Mrs. Tesman through discontent to eventual doom. “Everything I touch,” she says, “turns to horseshit in my hands.”

Hedda Gabler seems a natural for camp treatment. But camp wore out its welcome years ago, and only a few performers can power through drag’s misogynistic showboating to get to something worthwhile (c.f. Kiki and Herb). Prior and company try to steer a middle course between Ibsen’s intentions and camp’s excesses. The result is an occasionally amusing comedy, but one with few outright laughs and little emotional depth. The cast can be appealing—especially Brey, Tim Dunaway’s fluttery Thea, and Robert Navarett’s deadpan Berte—but they’re all wigged up with nowhere really to go.

Prior does a finer job with his ’60s period costumes and inventive set design. Everything’s done up in black, white, and gray, to create the effect of an old movie. A video screen broadcasts title credits and taped between-scene action. All of which gives Speed Hedda the feel of a pleasingly noir Dick Van Dyke Show.

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