By MARK PEIKERT
Henrik Ibsen's classic Hedda Gabler is getting overhauled in theatre company Less Than Rent's Friends Don't Let Friends, now playing at Walkerspace. Gone are the constrictive clothes, the heady philosophy and the unfortunate marriage, replaced by a Hedda whose job as a sitcom actress creates a divide between her professional and personal faces.
"I really wanted to work with melodrama and kind of explore the less dramatic side of it," says playwright James Presson. "If something is so adamantly melodramatic then it almost becomes farcical in a way. And with slightly altered stakes, [Hedda Gabler] could read as practically like a sitcom."
Presson transplanted the basic premise of Ibsen's play---an unhappy woman feels trapped by her circumstances---to the frantic world of network TV, where starlet Laura Burns has been languishing for four years as a star of a hit comedy called Reel Deal.
"Her father was a great actor in his day, and she is questioning the artistic credibility of the work she's doing," Presson explains of his heroine. "The plotline of the sitcom itself is about young artists competing with each other, mirroring the competition for professorship in Hedda Gabler."
However, Presson says audiences unfamiliar with Ibsen will not feel lost at Friends Don't Let Friends: "The themes in it are timeless, and I think the fundamental themes of the play are just as important and just as easily explored in a more modern context."
This isn't the first time Presson has contemporized a classic with Less Than Rent. The company has also produced Little Town Blues, his adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters, and made its debut in 2010 with Richard 3, his take on Shakespeare's tragedy.
"I love the idea of looking at a story that we all know already and kind of exploring other elements of it that don't immediately spring to mind," Presson says. "When you have a classic piece of work, you have a little bit more freedom to take what really resonates with you and go deeper into it."
Fellow Less Than Rent member Rachel Buethe has been at Presson's side for all of his adaptations, first as an actress in Richard 3 and then as co-writer of Little Town Blues. With Friends Don't Let Friends, she is taking the directorial reins for the first time.
"What I've been looking at is this idea of isolation," Buethe says. "And it's about regret, too. In [Friends], the Hedda character has a job that is supposedly her dream job, and all of a sudden she is feeling purposeless and insignificant. And it's nice to be working on a play that is about art and asking questions about that, but it's [also] about this deep desire to be creating something meaningful and you get stuck in a rut and realize that you're just…not."
The question of what makes art---and the ambition to continue trying to make it---is at the root of the company, which Presson started with friends when Richard 3was accepted into the 2010 FringeNYC Festival. As Buethe says, "We are a group of young artists, and our experience in the theatre is thoroughly limited, but we are reaching inside ourselves and pulling out all the feelings and emotions and thoughts, doubts---everything we have---and literally putting them on the stage."
Mark Peikert is the theatre critic for NYPress.com