Britney Frazier plays the title character in The Cutting Ball Theater’s “Hedda Gabler.” (Courtesy Liz Olson)

Britney Frazier plays the title character in The Cutting Ball Theater’s “Hedda Gabler.” (Courtesy Liz Olson)

Cutting Ball’s iconoclastic ‘Hedda’ confuses

Audiences of “Hedda Gabler” at Cutting Ball Theater might think that director Yury Urnov — who so masterfully staged “Ubu Roi” for Cutting Ball awhile back — hates Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s late-19th-century realist classic about an unhappy bride chafing at the restrictions of marriage and society.

They might think Urnov’s aim is to mock Ibsen’s tendency toward the melodramatic, and to turn the drama into an absurdist comedy.

But the director’s comments belie that aim: He suggests that Ibsen perhaps not only dislikes, but also fears his own characters: “It is this exact combination of fear and surgically dispassionate psychological analysis that makes his work so special and so relevant,” he writes in the program.

Yet nothing in this chaotic and confusing production, in Paul Walsh’s admirably tight translation/adaptation, conveys those intriguing observations.

The actors (except for Michelle Drexler’s small role as a harried and harassed maid) are so over the top — shouting, mugging, stomping about, hamming it up, gesturing broadly, flinging themselves about gracelessly on the floor and on benches — that it’s no wonder part of the audience laughed uproariously throughout.

Others might have been justifiably perplexed.

What to make, for example, of Urnov’s gardening theme? Bouquets of flowers dangle from the ceiling; gardening gloves, boots and shears are prevalent; Brack, the one character who understands the complex Hedda all too well, sports a gardening apron and carries a watering can; Lovborg, the writer who fires Hedda’s romantic imagination, drags around a pitchfork; Aunt Juliane’s hat bobs with roses and she wields a metal gardening fork like an Edward Scissorhands extension of her fingers; Hedda’s gown is decorated with sewn-on flowers, which she plucks at lazily, along with picking at her fingernails, to indicate boredom; Tesman, Hedda’s husband, appears wearing dark goggles; on the soundtrack Tiny Tim warbles “Tiptoe through the Tulips” at one point.

Urnov is entertainingly inventive, for sure. Bowler-hatted stagehands dance cavort through set changes accompanied by songs in various genres that relate obliquely to the plot. Silhouettes, seen on a curtain, reveal certain actions.

But when you have a Thea (the former classmate, now Hedda’s nemesis) who sneers and snarls and seems borderline psychotic, a cartoonish Brack, a robotic Tesman, a seemingly malevolent Aunt Juliane, a histrionic and unappealing Lovborg and a Hedda who lacks nuance or credibility, there’s no way an iconoclastic approach like Urnov’s can bring true meaning to the material.

REVIEW

Hedda Gabler
Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: 277 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 26
Tickets: $15 to $45
Contact: (415) 525-1205, www.cuttingball.comCutting Ball TheaterHedda GablerIbsenPaul WalshTheaterYury Urnov

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