Monday, October 11, 2021

Purely unacademic: Edward Albee's epic four-character drama inaugurates Bard Fest series

 The striking way "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" opens establishes the play's atmosphere of

A successful marriage may be two people looking in the same direction, but not in the case of George and Martha.

foreboding about as effectively as the first scene of "Hamlet," with its edgy nightwatch tension on a castle platform at Elsinore.

Stumbling into their home from a late-night party at the university president's house, George and Martha  also stumble into a pop-culture dispute about movies. Many couples have had such conversations at a trivial level. With George and Martha, they strike deep. The failures of memory and a feisty lack of interest in each other's focus, whether it be momentary or permanent, offer a dark foreshadowing of the more tangled, confused narratives of a troubled marriage. The ghost of Hamlet's father has nothing on the unmet need of this academic couple for a private seminar on their relationship.

New faculty wife Honey is bubbly to a point.
  1. That's what ensues in the course of three hours in Edward Albee's enduring drama, which opened over the weekend in an Indy Bard Fest production initiating the Shakespeare-based theater festival's broadened expanse. Seen in Sunday's matinee (three more performances remain next weekend), "The Prestige Project" launch immediately caught the convulsive spatting of the middle-aged couple. A much different younger couple will soon be drawn into the vortex.

"Has this thing appeared again tonight?" we might ask rhetorically, echoing the arriving watch in "Hamlet." Indeed, it has, and will not be laid to rest. Nan Macy and Tony Armstrong build unerringly on the haunting of the George-Martha relationship by unresolved issues of power, prestige, fidelity, self-esteem, and fulfillment. The fact that Martha has sprung upon George news of her invitation at her father's party to a new faculty couple is the first indication that she is accustomed to asserting marital control. But over the long haul, it's a bravura dance on shaky ground.

Albee was a young master at peeling away facades of stability, here creating loads of unsettling dialogue that draw upon his absorption in Theatre of the Absurd. No one can resist provocation, it seems, or yielding to the abandonment of decorum under duress. The playwright warmed up to this sort of thing in his fizzy chamber play "The Zoo Story."  The flippant, banal misunderstandings and non sequiturs Albee must have learned from Ionesco get their personalized marching orders in this masterpiece.

In "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" the dissection is brutal and sustained. When Nick and Honey

Nick restrains Martha's attack.

enter, it's obvious that Honey's facade offers much less protection than Nick's. Matthew Walls and Afton Shepard play the new professor and his fragile wife with a sure sense for how young marriages and young careers feel their way in new situations. 

There's a tradition to uphold in such institutions, but the human cost is often untidy. A small New England college is seen as carrying the burden of a frayed civilization, so it's too bad the serviceable set at the Cat can't accommodate the appearance of overloaded built-in bookshelves. But that's a slight sacrifice, and Albee doesn't stipulate a milieu so detailed.

Director Matthew Socey moves the cast around the living room with a chess master's instinct for dramatic strategy and the tactical idiosyncrasies of the characters. Everything the actors say and do projects the post-party's emotional turmoil, which  begins in games, moves through a kind of demonic possession, and ends in sacramental resolution.

Macy's performance Sunday had the sensuality Martha needs. She's more than the reflexive bullying and braying she denies. The parry and thrust of marital conflict seem to suit her, allowing her to be forthright about her readiness to misbehave and to emasculate her husband. Macy modulated the ferocity just enough to prepare us for the revelation of her hidden agenda under George's vengeful manipulation.

The lies and memory games intensify as the older couple embroil Nick and Honey in their dysfunctional relationship. Armstrong's characterization of George had well-distributed notes of fury that burst fitfully through his repressed demeanor. Holding in his resentments in an attempt to adjust to professional and personal failure, this George sometimes spoke too softly to be clear (in Act 2 especially), but the tension of his self-restraint always came through.

Walls delivered a full-spectrum performance in which the well-mannered Nick is gradually goaded into competition with George and drops his evenness of temper in frustration with his ditsy, unstable wife's behavior and his hosts' uproar. Shepard  gave a good portrait of naivete unraveling, nudged by a weak constitution and shrill alarm at Martha and George's open warfare.

Excessive drinking has a lot to do with how the four characters become more unbuttoned, vulgar, caustic and self-revealing. All that letdown was credibly handled and never rushed in Sunday's performance. The long show presented an obvious challenge to the actors, but it was the consistent control they maintained that made this disturbing play hold up as a classic of modern American theater in this production. 

[Photos by Chapital Photography]

1 comment:

  1. Did you review the Onyx Fest this year? Why not? I am shamed and saddened that not a single reviewer bothered to support the black arts in Indianapolis. Not a single one, even on a simple digital blog. But reviews are important, right?