‘Hedda Gabler’ goes to the Dalmatians 

In the distinguished 40-year history of the American Conservatory Theater, there have been many splendid productions, but Shakespeare and Ibsen somehow always fared poorly. Unsatisfactory, yes, but seldom as misguided as at Wednesday night’s opening performance of "Hedda Gabler."

Ibsen’s 1890 play is part melodrama, part psychological study, of a complex, conflicted, struggling woman looking for love in all the wrong places. In the American Conservatory, under Richard E. T. White’s direction, René Augesen appears in the title role as a clownish combination of Lady Macbeth and Cruella De Vil (of "101 Dalmatians"). Ibsen’s Hedda involves and moves; White’s Hedda is just ridiculous and mean.

As the curtain goes up, Augesen’s Hedda is seen in an anachronistic pantsuit, on Kent Dorsey’s spectacular superstructure over what Ibsen described as "a spacious, handsome and tastefully furnished drawing room, decorated in dark colors." Is there a statement being made here? Not really: For the rest of the play, Augesen (and the rest of the cast) wears proper period costumes, and scant use is made of the metal framework over the basic unit set.

Unlike that initial bait-and-switch, White’s deconstruction of Hedda for the rest of the evening is consistent. Ibsen’s Hedda is complex, strange, puzzling, scheming, unfortunate, self-destructive; it should take most of the first act to figure out the terrible dark place in her heart. White’s Hedda swaggers, twitches, assaults — in the worst tradition of "The Drunkard" — from the very beginning, you just want to strangle her from the get-go. Obvious as hell and twice as unpleasant, this Hedda is not someone you could possibly care about, so why bother?

With that caveat about the stake through the heart of the production, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? It offers some fine (and much less misdirected) performances, especially by Anthony Fusco, as Hedda’s unfortunate husband, a decent, meek, boring man, who ironically may be assured of a better life when the final curtain falls. The best — if perhaps a bit too modern — performance comes from Jack Willis as Commissioner Brack, the big man with the big voice doing a splendid job.

Stephen Barker Turner is a one-note Lovborg, and Finnerty Steeves struggles with the thankless role of Mrs. Elvsted. More major performances came from the minor characters, Sharon Lockwood’s Miss Juliane and Barbara Oliver’s maid. Upholding the rule of "no small roles, only ..." both Lockwood and Oliver provide moments of subtlety eschewed by both director and title character.

Hedda Gabler

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and most Wednesdays; closes March 11

Tickets: $16 to $80

Contact: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org

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