Edward Albee is dead. While audiences and theater-makers around the world mourn the three-time, Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright's recent passing on Sep. 16, his work palpably shows that the question of death is not always a settled one.
That’s certainly true of his 1962 shocker, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play so simply conceived that you could sum it up in two actions: guests come and guests go. Or if you’re a stickler for detail: a middle-aged couple, George and Martha, invites a younger one, Nick and Honey, over for late night drinks, on a kind of wouldn’t-it-be-fun-to-keep-the-party-going lark.
Most productions of Who’s Afraid follow the template of Mike Nichols’ justly lauded 1966 film adaption starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, right down to Taylor’s boozy line readings and the knick-knack realism of the sets. So the first shock we get in the Shotgun Players’ radical take on Albee’s play is what’s missing. Almost everything. Director Mark Jackson and set designer Nina Ball strip the stage of every prop except the most essential: liquor and the glasses with which to down it.
That one move plunges us into a world of stark beauty. The raised stage resembles a ballroom platform, its shiny floor spit-polished for the violence to come. Bisecting the long floating bar that covers the width of the stage, a bare staircase leads to a shadowy second floor bathroom, the finish line to a couple of memorable sprints to vomit in private. The liquor bottles, a dazzling array of primary colors offset by a white background, are garishly lit and possess an almost religious luminescence.
One might say that it’s a set that requires our active imagination. Every aspect of it could stand for almost anything at any given moment. Beth Wilmurt’s Martha slides down the front of the platform with an ice skater’s ease, ending with a demure cross of the legs as if she had politely lowered herself into a chair. When David Sinaiko’s George needs privacy, he merely steps off the platform and into what feels like nothing. Yet that space ably transforms into various hallways, the living room, and a graveyard of abandoned and broken shot glasses.
Jackson choreographs the action so that each individual moment possesses a symbolic visual logic. Nick sits on the couch -- the edge of the platform -- and George walks up to him, towering over the taller, younger man before him. Both actors perform the scene in a realistic manner, and yet the image of George as twice the size of Nick tells a wildly different story, as if reality were bifurcating right in front of us.
Megan Trout’s Honey, the character most bound to the needs of the architecture -- she’s a vomiter -- slips, falls, and lurches her way through a series of impossible poses, all of which would violate logic in a more realistic set. Here, however, they play up how malleable and misused Honey's body and spirit are. We take all this in realistically, and yet the only way we understand the reality before us is that it is fundamentally not there. That’s not only a brilliant theatrical ploy, but also one that cuts deep into the logic of Albee’s troubling vision: the world is only what we make it out to be.
Jackson hasn’t come up with a concept so much as an assault; not an interpretation but a demand: that the play, the actors, the direction, the design, and the audience come together and perform a collective act of creation. And that’s what Albee probably wants -- for us to see what the imagination really is and how the world around us is a product of its violent desires for happiness and peace.
That tension is right there in the opening of the third act, when Martha, alone on the stage, starts to act out bits and pieces of the life and marriage she wishes she had. Wilmurt glides across the stage, tapping parts of the set as if Martha is feeling the outlines of her soul. The scene is often played as a drunk lashing out at the world, at odds with everything and everyone around her. But Wilmurt’s touch is gentle and precise. Through her superb performance, we realize how fragile Martha is, and how delicate the life and world she’s made truly are. Drunk has never been so exacting and painful.
As the play unfurls its way to Albee’s haunting end, the production becomes so simple and alive that it hardly feels as if the brilliant cast is acting at all. They have become everything that we have imagined, and so they just say the lines and we happily and painfully fill in the rest. It’s like a carpet-bombing inside your head. Albee is dead, but Shotgun’s production brings his imagination bracingly back to life.
Shotgun Players' 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' runs through Sunday, Nov. 20 at The Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information, click here.