Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Ensemble Theatre

(From left: Robert Hawkes, Ursula Cataan, Sebastian Hawkes Orr, Carla Petroski)

“Whoa, the games people play now,
Every night and every day now,
Never meanin’ what they say now,
Never sayin’ what they mean.”

That catchy tune written by Joe South was popular in the 1960s, and it would serve as an excellent theme song for the Edward Albee play from that time, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

After the play was made into a stunning movie starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the venal and combative George and Martha, it became a challenge for any theater company to approach the material. Who can match the inspired, boozy perfection of that casting, including the hapless young couple who wander into the party from hell?

Well, Ensemble Theatre, for one. Even though one actor begins in an extremely rocky and overblown way, she gets it under control and joins a simply wonderful presentation of a play that never seems to age a day.

Associate history prof George, a middle-aged intellectual non-entity, is locked in a marriage of desperation to Martha, a woman with a big mouth, a braying style, and a taste for blood when it comes to interpersonal relations. And since her pop is the head of the university, she is more than a little ambitious for her husband, who apparently couldn’t care less.

After a faculty get-together, George and Martha invite a young couple, Nick and Honey, over to their house for a drink. And once that door closes behind the four, the sparks start to fly for an engrossing three hours. Playing vicious, non-Parker Brothers games such as “Humiliate the Host,” “Hump the Hostess,” “Get the Guests,” and the biggest one of all (let's call it “Where Is Sonny?”), the four are engaged in a psychological dance to the death.

The Ensemble cast under the agile and nuanced direction of Licia Colombi, is, eventually, simply superb. But it doesn’t start too well, with Carla Petroski as Martha substituting broad acting for acting like a broad. As the party gets rolling, Petroski’s beat changes are wooden and obvious, and her initial scene with Robert Hawkes as George don’t convey the right amount of tension.

In addition, Petroski gets too drunk too soon, even given the fact the characters were swilling booze earlier. These are professional lushes; they don’t start slurring their words until they start tipping the second fifth. And then, magically, she seems to sober up later in the act.

Happily, the first act is largely saved once Nick and Honey arrive. Ursula Cataan is worth double the price of admission in the role of Honey. As the fragile, giggly, totally naïve Honey, Cataan is spot on from the moment she steps on stage, without ever condescending to her character and making her a stereotype.

And once the second act starts, everyone seems to be on the same page and the rollercoaster ride is officially in progress. So strap yourself in. Hawkes convincingly etches a portrait of George, the softly wrinkled and abused man who still harbors the strength to lash back at his tormentors. And lash he does, with a quiet ferocity that is terrifying in its methodical ruthlessness.

Sebastian Hawkes Orr (Nick) lays low until Nick and George get into their own slow motion duel. This sequence is highlighted by Orr’s spectacular, tipsy discussion of his wife’s minister father and Honey’s hysterical pregnancy. As he slaloms through the curves and moguls of Albee’s entrancing language, he builds a portrait of a man trapped in a marriage he can’t escape, just like George.

Once Petroski starts to follow the Zen Rule of Acting (To own a line, you must throw it away), her Martha galvanizes as a figure of profound complexity. Loving George and yet compelled to lacerate him, she locks onto Hawkes with her eyes and the pair of combatants keep stinging like two scorpions trapped in a velvet bag, until exhaustion finally ends the match.

It’s a damn shame this show closes after just its second week on Sunday, October 5 (opening week was cancelled due to a cast member injury). But if you can get there, for chrissakes get there.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Produced by Ensemble Theatre at the
Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,

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