‘The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler’

You know this play is going to be a bit eccentric when the looming portrait of General Gabler, hanging prominently before the red velvet proscenium curtains, sternly prompts you to turn off your cell phones and unwrap your candy before the play begins.

But even the old general couldn’t prepare you for the outrageous humor, pure joyful snark and improbably poignant undercurrents of “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” by Jeff Whitty, which opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bowmer Theatre on Saturday.

OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch directed the premiere of “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., in January, 2006. South Coast Rep commissioned Whitty’s play and they must have been somewhat soothed by the fact that Whitty had won a Tony Award in 2004 for the book of the successful Broadway musical “Avenue Q.”

I can only say I would have loved to have heard the pitch meeting for this one.

Here, Hedda Gabler inhabits a parallel universe of memorable fictional characters. It’s a sort of purgatory, where their stories are played out over and over. So, Hedda (Robin Goodrin Nordli) is doomed to constantly shoot herself at the end of Ibsen’s play, only to wake up the next morning and start the pattern all over again. Similarly, her neighbor, Medea (Kate Mulligan), is doomed to repeatedly kill her children. Just as Tosca (Gwendolyn Mulamba) is doomed to forever jump off that cliff. (Undoubtedly, staging concerns stopped Whitty from having Anna Karenina repeatedly throw herself in front of that train. Or, maybe, Whitty, an avid Hedda fan, simply did not want to see her upstaged.)

As Medea explains to Hedda, vivid characters are doomed to repeat their stories until, finally, they are forgotten. Although all of this is very comforting to Hedda’s husband, Tesman (Christopher DuVal), Hedda thinks it is just dreadful. She has spent her life continually being trapped in her circumstances. It is time to rebel against that dreary playwright and actually change. — — Hedda Gabler (Robin Goodrin Nordli, right) finds her love Eilert Lovborg (Gregory Linington) sitting outside the Furnace of Creation.

In this topsy-turvy world, Hedda’s servant is Mammy from “Gone With the Wind.” Mammy (Kimberly Scott) is getting a bit tired of the whole slave shtick. Especially with a shrew like Hedda as a mistress. So when Hedda strikes out to find “The Furnace,” the awful source of all artistic creation, Mammy goes along — carrying the luggage, of course.

Ironically, Hedda’s quest becomes its own mythic journey. (See “Campbell, Joseph.”) The unlikely guides on this vision quest are Patrick (Anthony Heald) and Steven (Jonathan Haugen), two ’70s campy gay queens right out of early “out” plays like Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band.” Smart-talking, show business savvy Patrick and Steven are getting pretty tired of their shtick, too.

After a few hilarious episodes — including Mammy’s encounter with a ’70s “liberated” black woman, Cassandra, Little Orphan Annie, Dorothy, and a Chainsaw Killer, and a sojourn in the Verdant Glade of the Christs (where each “Christ” character is simply a different iconic view of Jesus) — the gang arrives at the fiery Furnace.

And here’s where “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” gets about three different endings. What happens to the world around us and our relationships when we actually change? What happens to artistic creation when that creation is tampered with? How much are myths the creation of their audience rather than their author?

But, hey, not to worry. Playwright Whitty and director Rauch don’t go all squirrelly and maudlin here. The jokes keep coming, the patter doesn’t stop and the play keeps evolving right up to the unlikely finale.

Robin Goodrin Nordli, of course, played Hedda Gabler in the 2003 OSF production of the play that Bill Rauch directed, so there is more than a sly bit of humor in the casting. Rauch brought in two actors from the South Coast Rep premiere: the astonishing Kimberly Scott, who plays Mammy; and Kate Mulligan, who deftly plays Medea and assorted other “folk” from this parallel universe. Likewise, Gwendolyn Mulamba does a good bit of upstaging with her “cameo” characters, as does DuVal as Tesman and Gregory Linington as the still-bitter Eilert Lovborg.

Rauch has also used costume designer Shigeru Yaji and lighting designer Jeff Korf from the 2003 OSF production — they worked on the South Coast Rep production of this play as well. Rauch imported the rest of his creative team from South Coast — Christopher Acebo as set designer and composer and sound designer Paul James Prendergast. — The adventure has begun, and Tesman (Christopher DuVal, left), his servant (Kimberly Scott), Patrick (Anthony Heald) and Steven (Jonathan Haugen) are shipmates together.

Side note: “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” merits a special mention to its dramaturg. OSF’s own Lue Morgan Douthit did an incredible job piecing together the “structure” of this play, which must have been a monumental task — and a labor of love.

I don’t think I have laughed so hard and for so long in the theater in years. That my laughter was at OSF, in the Bowmer, says a lot about Bill Rauch’s vision for the Festival and what we have in store for coming years.

Bravo, Bill!

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