I‘ll tell you one thing Speed-Hedda isn’t: another drag show hung on the bones of an old movie, replete with cheap gags and half-assed makeup efforts. We‘ve seen enough of these to quickly spot the species — the kind of show whose lead sashays onstage with thick rectangular eyebrows and a bottle of gin to suggest Joan Crawford. The kind whose dialogue likewise suggests comedy by the number of times the words queen, fairy and drag get worked into the repartee — loudly stressed, just in case we didn’t get the author‘s playful wit. And the kind of evening whose studied amateurism and paper-moon production values make L.A. drag theater a once-a-year experience.
No, these ain’t Speed-Hedda. Adapted from Henrik Ibsen‘s Hedda Gabler by director Robert A. Prior, this all-male, Evidence Room–Fabulous Monsters co-production is a smart comic ballet that, for 80 minutes, sweeps away our apprehensions about drag theater. That Ibsen is the source material should alone alert us to the show’s erudite novelty, but Prior does more than tart up with modern dress and mores a bitchy persona taken from the high art of the 19th century. His undertaking, as caustically funny as it is, also is clearly a literary valentine from someone so intimately acquainted with Hedda Gabler that his divertissement contains as much homage as comedy, bending Marx‘s aphorism to say that what appears as tragedy the first time around can return as camp.
Prior moves the action stateside to 1962 — that apogean year of Camelot and suburbia before the buckling of the American consensus, the year that Kennedy stared down the Soviets and the last summer the New York Yankees were invincible. It was also a time when the American woman, worldly yet still submissive, had supposedly been emancipated by the laboratories of democracy — by the Pill, and by the ”mother’s little helpers“ that kept female depression and calories in check.
This is the world of Hedda (Mark Brey) and her academician husband, George Tesman (Bennett Schneider), whom we meet as they‘re seated on a plane, returning to their provincial home, physically so close to one another yet mentally worlds apart. They are greeted at the airport (nicely rendered on video by Rush Riddle and Marvin Solomon) by George’s nattering old Aunt Julie (Tim Dunaway).
From here on, it‘s not too difficult to discern the contours of Ibsen’s 1890 drama: Hedda, a rebellious if manipulative and malevolent spirit, feels trapped by her bookworm spouse and the claustrophobia of small-town life. She brightens with the news that an old flame, the dashing yet alcoholic Eliot Loevborg (Schneider), has appeared in town to promote his new book and, possibly, to compete with George for a job. Meanwhile, Hedda takes Eliot‘s gullible ex-mistress, Thea (Dunaway), into her confidence in order to use her as a pawn in a game of sexual wills with Eliot, while making herself teasingly alluring to her friend and drug supplier, Dr. Brock (Kirk Wilson).
While the highlights of Ibsen’s plot emerge more or less intact here, a second, parallel show unfolds in the over-the-top, cross-dressed environment created by Prior and his cast. The heart of this adjacent world is Brey‘s performance as Hedda, a tall, slender figure in black who sprints away with the show, from pantomiming an exercise in reckless driving, to realigning his character’s jaw from the effects of too much speed. Whether toying with the plodding Thea‘s unrequited love for Eliot, or spinning Les Baxter and Yma Sumac platters from a hi-fi alcove that resembles an execution chamber, Brey embodies the brittle persona of a woman headed toward a tragic destiny.
The actor and the show’s capable ensemble are expertly guided by Prior and backed by a fine technical team whose work includes John Zalewski‘s crisp, start-on-a-dime sound design, Jerry Browning’s murky lighting and Carol Cetrone‘s fluid choreography. Marilyn Moore and Gladys Yeater’s costumes accomplish something rare in cross-dressed shows by giving the actors enough to convey the characters‘ era and personalities without burying them under a pile of outrageous period clothes.
For all its originality, there is much that is familiar about Prior’s send-up, which rests upon that time-honored focus of drag comedy, the out-of-control female. Like many another drag heroine, Prior‘s Hedda is pulled between sluttiness and (to use a term of the time) frigidity; the resulting tension produces a woman ever on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a condition worsened by the fact that Hedda skis over the adversity of modern life on a prescription of amphetamines. The speed dispensed by the obliging Dr. Brock (Hedda has no appetite for Miltown, Librium or any of the other tranks then in vogue) only intensifies her manic laughter and impulsive acts of cruelty.
As with other works of the high-heeled transvestite genre, the ”women“ in Speed-Hedda physically dominate their male counterparts onstage, none more so than in the case of Brey whenever he towers over the diminutive Schneider, who, nevertheless, essays a good contrast in the dual roles of the mousy medievalist George and the leather-clad Eliot.
Finally, it is Prior’s chosen time period that links his work with such stage musicals as Charles Busch‘s Psycho Beach Party and John Waters’ Hairspray (which opens next year on Broadway), as well as a sexio-political comedy such as Doug Field‘s Down South, which premiered in L.A. this spring and which, like Speed-Hedda, swims in a boozy haze of Latin cocktail-hour music. The early 1960s presents these happy campers with an inviting frontier to explore, for besides forming a borderland where the twilight of Eisenhower puritanism met the dawn of love-generation experimentation, these years also saw the last vestiges of the girdle-and-glove formality so essential to the drag aesthetic. This bouffanted epoch offers Prior a psychological ecology in which not only Hedda but America itself seems torn between moral correctness and libidinous chaos, teetering on the edge of repression and impulse. In other words, Prior places his farce in a time in which people could still be embarrassed.
Even though, as mentioned earlier, we may be certain about what Speed-Hedda isn’t — and may enjoy it for just that — we don‘t necessarily know what it represents beyond a clever camp outing, a problem that may rest with the show’s antagonist. Hedda Gabler, after all, is a more problematic figure than Nora Helmer of Ibsen‘s A Doll’s House because of her rather cruel and selfish personality. Whereas Nora‘s revolt against husband and family can be comfortably converted into the terms of modern liberalism, Hedda’s actions are more the impulses of a hedonist than of a feminist, making our embrace of her tentative at best. Whenever our eyes connect that missing manuscript of Loevborg‘s unpublished book with the Tesmans’ fireplace (at least, in traditional stagings of Hedda Gabler), something kicks inside our stomachs and we begin to turn against Hedda, for she is no longer a threatening ”castrator“ but a potential infanticide, as Loevborg‘s maternal descriptions of his lost work imply.
Nevertheless, Speed-Hedda is a dark, funny and intelligent work whose mood swings approximate those of its fated heroine. The serious side of Prior’s effort arrives at the very end, when, after Hedda has made a shocking decision, the hi-fi‘s turntable gets stuck repeatedly playing a single word from Camelot’s ”If Ever I Would Leave You,“ and suddenly the moment shifts from Hedda Gabler to Ibsen‘s Ghosts, from Hedda to Oswald — a moment of unbearable melancholy in which the two can be seen as brother and sister.