General Gabler’s Theatre boldly breaks boundaries

A new take on Ibsen

General Gabler

Photo courtesy of General Gabler’s Theatre
Danny J. Hassett (left) and Natalie Schmidt (right) appear as Thea Elvsted and the title character in the General Gabler’s Theatre new production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at Seattle’s West of Lenin theater in Seattle.

Lori Ann Reinhall
Editor-in-chief
The Norwegian American

When I learned that my hometown, Seattle, was now home to a new theater company devoted entirely to the oeuvre of Henrik Ibsen, I got very excited. Ibsen is one of the reasons why I am here as your editor-in-chief. When I started studying Scandinavian languages and literature, I got hooked on his plays, and throughout my life, I have read all of them. His prose helped immerse me in the Norwegian language and the cultural history of Norway.

Ibsen tends to have that effect on one, with his language so carefully crafted, yet so simple and natural. His dialogues flow with ease and take you into another time and place. Think of the sound of the door slamming as Nora walks out the door in A Doll’s House (1879) or the shot we hear fired at the end of Hedda Gabler (1890). They are dramatic moments that you don’t easily forget.

It was Hedda Gabler that inspired Helen T. Mariam to found the new Seattle theater company, General Gabler’s Theatre, and, of course, their premier production was Hedda Gabler. After I saw the play at the West of Lenin theater in Seattle’s trendy Fremont district this past summer, Mariam and I met up at a local coffeehouse to talk about her own love affair with Ibsen and what she hopes to accomplish with the new theater group.

Mariam, with a background in film, has always had a strong interest in drama and live theater, but is was a personal relationship that brought her to Ibsen. Her partner, Nathalie Schmidt, who played the lead role in the new Seattle production, had long dreamed of playing the lead role of Hedda. Together, the two decided to make it happen by founding their own company. When it needed a name, they joked that they would call in “General Gabler’s Pistols,” which in a more serious vein became General Gabler’s Theatre.

Both Mariam and Schmidt have regular day jobs, and the new theater company is truly a labor of love for them. All the actors involved have theater experience, but they also work in other professions to earn their livelihoods. This requires incredible dedication and discipline to deliver a professional performance. The result is community theater at its best.

What is bold and new about General Gabler’s Theatre is that it is a non-binary theater group. This means that roles are not cast according to the two traditional gender classifications of woman or man. I had never experienced this in live theater before, and certainly not in an Ibsen play, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I was curious to understand the motivation and logic behind the new concept.

“As actors, there are often limited opportunities for women in live theater, so we decided to do something different with the non-binary cast,” Mariam said. All the roles in Hedda Gabler were cast with women or trans non-binary actors. At the same time, a strong statement was made about one of the major themes of the play, the absurdity of the societal norms of the late 19th century, when men and women were trapped into prescribed gender roles in opposition to their intrinsic nature. Hedda Gabler is a woman who cannot endure the situation life has dealt her, but in the end, she has “danced herself out” and in her own cowardly way, opted for the comfort of a conventional marriage, that of the life of wife and, eventually, mother.

But the outwardly magnificent Hedda Gabler can by no means be seen purely as a victim. She is a deeply flawed character, narcissistic and selfish, determined to get what she wants at the expense of others. Schmidt is able to capture this dichotomy, convincingly delivering Hedda’s sharp and sometimes cruel lines.

It is, in fact, the strong delivery of Ibsen’s dialogue in legendary actor and director  Eva Le Gallienne’s brilliant 1928 English translation that makes the production work. The outward physical appearance of the actors becomes secondary to what they are saying and doing on stage. It was admittedly a bit of  stretch to see Hedda’s counterpart character, Thea Elvsted, appear with a mustache and lamb-chop sideburns, but as the plot unfolds in this production, it is not the other appearance of the characters that is essential:  it is who they intrinsically are inside that matters.

In the end, who is Hedda Gabler? When she fires off General Gabler’s pistols at the end of the play and kills herself, we feel sympathy for the flawed protagonist, but we can also acknowledge much of her misery is self-inflicted, while other characters see a way for their lives to go on with some meaning. The tragedy is that Hedda’s life has been wasted.

But director Mariam is no Hedda Gabler. Despite the obstacles that a small independent theater company may face, including funding, she and co-artistic director Schmidt are looking to get more Ibsen on Seattle stages. Currently, ideas are being floated around for a new production of The Lady from the Sea (1888) and a 17th of May reading of The Vikings at Helgeland (1857) are underway. Seattle theatergoers and Ibsen aficionados will be waiting.

To learn more about General Gabler’s Theatre, visit generaltheatre.org.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.