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(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deena Marie Manzanares, as Hedda Gabler rehearses in the Sting & Honey's production of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" at the Black Box theater at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah Wednesday, April 2, 2014.
Driven by ambition, new Utah theater company looks for the heart of ‘Hedda Gabler’

Stage » Mounting classic offers another opportunity to showcase the professional ambitions of Sting and Honey Company.

By Ellen Fagg Weist

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Apr 04 2014 02:49 pm • Last Updated Apr 06 2014 05:50 pm

When Hurricane Hedda blew through Broadway with Cate Blanchett at its eye, the 2006 show earned high-profile buzz. But in Salt Lake City, a "Les Misérables" kind of town, it has been more than a decade since audiences have had a chance to see a local production of Henrik Ibsen’s classic "Hedda Gabler."

It’s a much-studied classic, to be sure, but considered immensely difficult to produce. That’s partly thanks to the main character, a potentially admirable woman driven to villainy by her lack of options. Hedda, a role considered as daunting to perform as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is completely fascinating, with layer after layer after layer of complications, says Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen, whose translation of the 1891 Norwegian play was produced at Brigham Young University in 1995.

At a glance

All about ‘Hedda’

The Sting and Honey Company production opens April 11 and plays eight shows.

When » April 11-19; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees.

Where » Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s Black Box Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Ticktets » $18 (plus $3.50 in service fees), $15 plus fees for students, at 801-355-2787

Info » stingandhoney.org/hedda-gabler

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In addition, the story’s other characters — including Hedda’s husband, George Tesman, her schoolmate Thea and her father’s friend Judge Brock — are equally complicated. "You need really good actors to play that," Samuelsen says. "And a smart director who really understands the piece."

That’s a perfect introduction to the fledgling Sting and Honey Company, which has operated for four years in Salt Lake City on little more than its founders’ ambitious ideas. Now, in only its third full-length production, the company is showcasing "Hedda" in all of its complexities.

Ambitious, sure, but right in line for a company that launched in 2011 with a production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist "Waiting for Godot."

Making the plays come alive is hard, but finding an audience might be an even bigger challenge. "Right now, we are establishing ourselves as a company who does the great works of the theatrical canon," says artistic director Javen Tanner, who is directing "Hedda." "I choose plays that fit in with my view of the history of theater, plays that I believe are great because they do what theater set out to do at the beginning: They create a ritual."

Company co-founder Tara Lynn Tanner, Javen’s wife, explains their approach this way: "We tend to do ambitious things. And that’s Javen. That’s what he does. He doesn’t think prudently. He doesn’t think: ‘We have a small budget. We can only hire this many people.’ Or: ‘Can we get an audience to come?’ He doesn’t think about that, which I think is just fantastic, because then we do things we are excited and passionate about. We try to do them to the best of our ability, and hopefully we can take an audience along with us."

‘Not like anybody else’ » No matter how many "Heddas" a theatergoer might have seen, this production will be different because Javen Tanner is directing it.

"On the surface, ‘Hedda Gabler’ looks like another realistic costume drama from the period," Tanner says. "What the play actually is, is a full-on festival of Dionysus fertility rites."

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He explains the allusions he’s drawn from a new translation of the text, how Hedda’s former lover is an alcoholic whom she encourages to drink again, bringing Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, back to what he was supposed to be. Women characters have the names of Greek goddesses, including a reference to a prostitute named Diana. And then there’s the play’s central ritual, the burning of a manuscript, which serves as a child sacrifice.

Run that imagery by Samuelsen, and he laughs through the phone line. "That’s Javen," he says of his former BYU acting student, who was always seeking material that would provide an artistic challenge.

"He’s not like anyone else around here," actor Kathryn Atwood says of how Tanner works with actors.

Yet Tanner’s intellectual approach isn’t heavy-handed. "Rather than a political agenda or a concept overlay for the sake of the concept, Javen is a die-hard believer that the beauty of the art can touch people," says David D’Agostini, the company’s managing director.

In directing "Hedda," Tanner has stayed true to the language of the script, but found Ibsen’s humor. "We are playing it with all the realism it deserves, but he adds this overlay of archetypical characters," Atwood says. "It’s beautiful. My part is small, but I like hanging around just watching him work with the other actors."

Deena Marie Manzanares, who is taking on the role of a lifetime in the character of 29-year-old Hedda, praises her director’s thoughtful approach to the play. "He’s really different, so smart and so detailed, the way he comes to every rehearsal, the way he starts a project so far in advance," she says. "I trust him to take me on the journey of Hedda, and I know he trusts me to bring it to life."

Tanner says he introduced the mythological themes and allusions at the cast’s first read-through. "Our conversations about character and motivations have very much included the conversation about Dionysus and Diana and the fertility rites," Tanner says. "But we spend our time in rehearsal doing what every cast does, very basic acting stuff, like asking: ‘What does your character want?’ We don’t start rehearsal with a chant."

Theater orphans » "That’s Javen," friends and colleagues explain over and over again.

"He’s an artist who is also a thinker," is how Tara Tanner describes her husband. "Every once in a while, we’re having an inane conversation over dinner and he’s just talking, and suddenly we are back with the ancient Greeks, we’re in the woods, we’re taking about nymphs and orgies. He’ll just take you down the road, and we’re all along for the ride."

Javen Tanner, approaching 40, grew up in Kanab. After serving an LDS mission to New Zealand, he married Tara when both were studying theater at BYU. Before declaring his major, he dabbled in pre-dentistry, psychology, "all sorts of silliness," he recalls, with a laugh. "I finally realized I had to not commit suicide, and I went into theater. As soon as I changed my major, my whole life changed. I was so happy."

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