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Hedda Gabler's cast and audience get cozy with one another

Ibsen play staged in West End's Roedde House Museum

Bob Frazer was initially afraid to get too close to the performers.

"I didn't want to be the guy that messed up the play," said the Vancouver actor, director and founder of Osimous Theatre.

But as the production of Hedda Gabler he saw in Edmonton in 2010 advanced with audience members sharing couches with the cast in a Victorian mansion, Frazer felt himself edging closer to the characters.

"I could see where they were going to sit because it was marked off, and so I would choose to sit right next to that spot," he said. "And then they would sit down and brush up against me, bumped into me, and I could smell them if they were wearing cologne and perfume, I could see them from inches away-it was fascinating."

Frazer asked director Kathleen Weiss if he could steal her idea.

He then asked Osimous Theatre's ensemble cast which plays they'd always wanted to perform, and actress Anna Cummer immediately named Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.

Now Cummer will play the title role in Osimous's production that will animate the Roedde House Museum, March 13 to 31.

While she describes the prospect of being cozy with audience members "terrifying," Cummer says performing up close and personal to an audience of only 20 each night is perfect for the play.

"There are so many parts in the play that are intimate, asides here and there to other characters, these quiet conversations that are happening in a clandestine way that could be overheard by other characters at any moment," she said. "It ups the ante a little bit to have the audience that close, and they share in Hedda's journey in a very, very different way."

Frazer, who directs the production, concurs. "Ibsen was considered the father of realism- He took away the [dramatic] asides and the gestures to the audience and the nudge, nudge, wink, wink sort of atmosphere and the great, grand melodrama, and he started to tell stories about what people were going through in the Victorian age," he said. "He's the perfect playwright to do an absolutely intimate theatre piece on."

Set in the Norwegian home of newlyweds George and Hedda Tesman near the turn of the 20th century, Hedda Gabler exposes a passionate woman struggling in a bourgeois world that she finds devoid of love and excitement. It's a story rife with secrets where Hedda has to choose whether she will follow her heart or society's norms.

A guide will lead audience members between three rooms and indicate where they can stand and sit.

"They're going to be on the piano bench next to the actor playing the piano," Frazer said.

Audience members will witness concurrent scenes in more than one room. "So if Hedda's trying to keep a secret from her husband, the audience is privy to that. But they know, they feel, they see that her husband is right there in the other room."

New company member Aslam Husain, who plays the passionate genius Lovborg joins Osimous Theatre's ensemble members Cummer, Craig Erickson, Dawn Petten and Derek Metz.

They're no newbies to the stage, with four of the six members slated to perform at Bard on the Beach this summer. Cummer is currently on stage in the Arts Club's Intimate Apparel, playing a Fifth Avenue socialite from New York City in 1905.

"I've been corseted for the last six weeks, so there's no needing to acclimatize to the costumes, at all," Cummer quipped.

This is the second production for Osimous, which received glowing reviews for its simple staging of contemporary American playwright Craig Wright's The Pavilion at the Firehall Arts Centre last year.

Osimous, pronounced aw-somess, formed in 2010 to mount productions as a collaborative core group of actors, directors and playwrights.

Frazer expects the closeness among the cast will be palpable in the restored late Victorian-era rooms of the Roedde House Museum.

"We're doing what we want and not because we think it's a great money-maker because, believe me, 20 people a night is not a money-maker," he said. "But we're passionate about the play so we're all doing it."

Hedda Gabler runs Mondays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. at 1415 Barclay St. For tickets, which are $30, phone 604-689-0926.

Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi