Hedda (Robin Goodrin Nordli, right), overwhelmed by her new surroundings, seeks comfort from her servant (Kimberly Scott, left). - Photo by Jenny Graham

Review: Euripides meets 'Groundhog Day' at OSF

Hedda Gabler is tired of the same old same old. Living out her days in a strange half-life in which dramatic characters are confined to the fate meted out by the writers who created them, Hedda winds up shooting herself with her father's pistol, time after time.

As Jeff Whitty's "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler" opened Saturday night at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre, directed by Bill Rauch, poor Hedda (Robin Goodrin Nordli) has shot herself in the head yet again and awakened on the couch, dazed and confused. The play is an extended answer to the question, what happened next?

It turns out Hedda lives with her husband, the plodding Tesman (Christopher DuVal), on the Cul de Sac for Tragic Women. Their servant is Mammy, from "Gone With the Wind." One of their neighbors is Medea (Kate Mulligan), who shows up in a bloody gown after killing the kids once again. She feels rotten about it but gets on with her life. What can you do?

It's Henrik Ibsen meets Euripides meets "Groundhog Day."

Since Hedda's life is and always will be intolerable, and death is apparently not a solution, Hedda decides to do what you do if you're the heroine of a road picture: go on the road. She sets out to find the Furnace, the mysterious place where fictional characters are created, accompanied by Mammy, who naturally totes the luggage.

Coos Bay product Whitty, who is best known for the book for "Avenue Q," for which he won a Tony Ward, loads the first scene with exposition disguised as dialogue, a choice pretty much mandated by the play's concept. Once that's out of the way, and we have a handle, the pace quickens when the gals hit that old metaphorical highway.

As road warriors from Odysseus to Little Miss Sunshine have discovered, the journey is internal as well as external. Mammy begins by simply serving Hedda, but when she meets a professional black woman who tells her she is an embarrassing racial stereotype, she acquires an arc of her own.

Things quickly get richer, and campy, when the women meet Patrick (Anthony Heald) and Steven (Jonathan Haugen), a couple of gay men from Mart Crowley's "The Boys in the Band." Patrick and Steven know the ropes. They become Hedda's and Mammy's allies, and they have some the wickedest lines.

The way it works, they explain, is that characters live as long as they are remembered. Forgotten, they disappear. And people still obsess over Hedda. We are even treated to a glimpse of a play-within-a-play mini-production of "Hedda Gabler" in a contemporary setting.

Patrick and Steven are self loathing stereotypes from the late 1960s, doomed to be viewed by young gay men today with something like the horror contemporary black people feel seeing Hattie McDaniel. But they raise the question of whether, rather than being scorned, they should be honored as pioneers on the leading edge of a new day.

Whitty has thrown the road picture, the buddy story, broad comedy, satire and the hero's journey into a blender and come up with a cocktail whose giddiness does not mask even more ambitious concerns even than the mystery of artistic creation. Can we really change?

We suspect that Hedda has been hanging not with Euripides but Camus, who wrote that suicide is the only serious philosophical question. Like Sisyphus with his boulder, Hedda, with her gun, finds life absurd. What she and Mammy and the others are seeking at the Furnace, that terrifying, mysterious maelstrom of creativity that allows them to enter their authors' heads, is any shred of the thing with feathers: hope.

I will not divulge what they find, which would be a spoiler. But Whitty has crafted that rather rare artifact in the contemporary theater, a satisfying ending.

The concept of a portal between creative literature and other realities is not particularly original (see Woody Allen's "The Kugelmass Episode"), but Whitty's treatment is fresh and provocative. He has a satirist's eye, and some of his barbs are sharper than others, and under Rauch's gleeful directing, most of them zing truly to their targets.

This is only the second-ever production of "The Further Adventures." The first was also directed by Rauch at South Coast Rep a couple years ago. One of the stars is Christopher Acebo's set. Unlike South Coast, with its proscenium arch, the Bowmer cannot fly sets in and out from above. So Acebo designed a structure that looms high above the stage and straddles it on both sides. For Tesman's home it is a formal proscenium; out on the road, and at the Furnace, it turntables around and becomes other things in a neat piece of theater.

The acting is strong throughout, with Kimberly Scott reprising her Mammy from the play's first production, and most of the actors popping up in ensemble roles. Nordli played Hedda in the OSF's 2003 "Hedda Gabler, but this is a different character. "Further Adventures" will make you laugh, then think, no small achievement.

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