Monday, October 24, 2016

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee

David Sinaiko, Josh Schell, Megan Trout & Beth Wilmurt
Truth or illusion?  A marriage based on some sort of perverted but still very real love or one condemned to be a no-exit hell of gotcha games and daily battles? 

For over fifty years, audiences have returned time and again to see if the latest stage version of Edward Albee’s Martha and George comes any closer to resolving their hate/love/hate relationship or if this time, they actually kill each other.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- the 1963 Tony winner for Best Play that continues to be revived time and again in New York and on stages across the entire globe – now brings the 25th anniversary season of Shotgun Players to an explosive, exciting, and fully engrossing close.  With superb direction, an intensely talented cast, and an unusual but creative production, Shotgun Players puts an exclamation point on a repertory season that already has had four winners preceding its finale.

That is not to say that the initial take on the bare, inlaid-wood stage with two back-wall, inset bars full of multi-colored booze bottles (separated by a set of wooden stairs) takes a bit of getting used to – say, like the entire first act of the play’s three.  That Martha as she initially comes into the supposed 1960’s living room has to hike up her skirt and step awkwardly onto the two-foot-high raised platform is at first weird and a bit ridiculous.  That both the hosts and their young-couple guests must sit on the floor or dangle off the side of the stage (where normally we would see them reclining on the kind of worn furniture expected in a middle-aged professor’s home) too often diverts our attention in the play’s beginning away from the sharply funny and darkly biting Albee script so well delivered by the foursome before us.  But as the play progresses, this set designed by Nina Ball becomes less jarring and attention-stealing and more a major asset in allowing Mark Jackson’s direction to have the unencumbered arena it needs to focus fully on the carefully choreographed solos, duets, trios, and full quartets of this grand opera that is spoken, not sung.

Time and again, Mark Jackson as Director squeezes out every possible drop from Albee’s juicy script by the way he blocks the principals, moves them apart for maximal distance and back together in close proximity, and orchestrates their rapid-fire bullets of dialogue interspersed with silences and stare-downs.  His artistry combined with the each actor’s prowess is particularly salient as host George and guest Nick have extended conversations in both the first and second acts.  At one point, the more senior, but shorter in height George stands before the handsome, twenty-eight-year-old Nick, who is sitting on the raised stage’s edge.  As George (David Sinaiko) espouses what it is like to be married to Martha, Nick (Josh Schell) responds with silence and a distinctly raised eyebrow, finally standing to be about eye-to-eye with George (even though he is on a level two feet lower), tolerating George’s remarks with a frozen smile that is half polite and half contempt (with a bit of disbelief showing on the edges).  Moments like this one are repeatedly co-sculptured by the director and his actors for images with lasting effects.

Josh Schell & David Sinaiko
Both Mr. Sinaiko and Mr. Schell give stellar performances in the roles of the two college professors in this 2-5 a.m. “party” Martha has orchestrated after a reception at her father’s (the institution’s president) house.  As they pump down the bourbons, each keeps an eye on the other, sizing up a possible opponent in one moment and bonding for at least a few minutes here and there amid their liquored stupors over their disappointments with their choice of wives.  As guest Nick, Josh Shell is cocky, cute, cynical, and courteous – sometimes all at the same time.  As the liquor accumulates, his stumbling, Adonis-like body becomes more rubber-like as he bounces down the house’s stairs or as he plops on the invisible furniture.  But even when clearly inebriated, he is still quite able to rise to battle’s call when too agitated by George or to arrouse himself to fall into Martha’s planned trap as she lures him from dance floor to her bedroom. 

David Sinaiko displays an incredibly wide range of voice inflections and volumes as well as physical moves and manipulations as he takes on the iconic role of George.  His calculations on the next game to propose (Is it time for “Hump the Hostess” yet?  How about “Get the Guests”?) are mapped clearly for us to see in his highly expressive face as he thinks them through in his head.  Whether pitted against Nick or especially against Martha, his piercing stares, his sudden shifts in mood, or his tone of voice that is edged with a life full of disappointment makes him a both foe and a friend/lover not to be ignored for long.

Megan Trout
Part of his evolving plan ultimately to win the night’s ultimate game against Martha involves discovering and exposing a secret about Honey – one that Nick tells in supposed confidence to him early on.  Megan Trout comes close to giving the performance of the evening as the sappy, vulnerable, and much-too-sweet-for-her-own-good Honey, young wife of Nick.  She arrives in pink shoes, baby blue coat, and white purse and seems immediately to have a natural knack of laughing much too loud and long at others’ jokes and remarks that are not really not all that funny.  Her getting-drunk-on-brandy performance is alone worth the ticket price as she slowly melts away into a boozy torpor.  Her various looks of hurt, of shock, of defiant indignation, and of final and total defeat are pictures to behold and to relish as the wee hours of this morning’s gathering proceeds.

Beth Wilmurt
And then there is Martha, the role that Edward Albee bestows some of the best of many great lines and the role made famous by the likes of Uta Hagan, Colleen Dewhurst, Kathleen Turner, and of course, Elizabeth Taylor (the last, on the big screen).  Beth Wilmurt brings a rather controlled, steady-going, and, at times, even low-keyed Martha.  While she is certainly calculating and caustic in her relentless attacks and maneuverings, Martha is not as bombastic, gravelly, or down-and-dirty as might be expected based on other performances previously witnessed of the same role.  For a Martha who is supposed to be older than her husband George, this Martha is actually younger looking.  For a woman who drinks for a living and has a personality from hell, this Martha is quite beautiful, slim, and even athletic.  Maybe those who have famously preceded her have too colored my expectations how Martha should look and sound, but I for one kept looking for someone that was almost but not quite the Martha I expected.

It would be remiss of me as a reviewer not to note the outstanding lighting design of Heather Basarab for this Shotgun production.  Particularly the way she plays shadows against the side walls is stunning, literally exposing the dark, under-sides of these characters that the play reveals bit by bit as they interact and spar during the evening’s course.  Sara Witsch uses subtle, tonal undertones in her sound design to increase the tension at critical moments without ever taking attention away from the action or the dialogue.  Ashley Holvick’s costumes aptly establish the 1960’s time period and the small-town college atmosphere that is purposely missing in Nina Ball’s set. 

When Nick at one point says, “I don’t know when you goddamned people are lying or not,” George matter-of-factly responds, “You’re not supposed to.”  In a play where characters’ tears are “put in trays in the freezer” in order to freeze them and then put the into their drinks, Edward Albee’s play can seem like a diatribe on the institution of marriage and on the lies couples create and keep alive in order to stay together to insure their unhappiness perseveres.  However, in this Shotgun Players’ production as in many before it, there is actually a small sliver of optimism dished to the audience at the play’s end that George and Martha may have turned a monumental corner as they conclude their penultimate game of the evening.  While Martha answers George’s final question of “Who’s of afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with “I am ... I am,” the two look at each other with a look that hints at the truth of an earlier remark Martha has made to the audience: “There’s only one man that ever made me happy ... George.” 

Congratulations to Shotgun Players for a magnificent, memory-making 25th season, ending with a noteworthy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Rating: 4 E

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues in main production through November 20 and then will run in repertory with the other four plays of the season through January 20, 2017.  Shotgun Players productions are on the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

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