Friday, September 11, 2009

If you are in New Mexico....

Go see Vortex Theatre's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


It's only playing weekends through October 4.

I just came home from seeing it tonight.

If you don't live in New Mexico you may not know that New Mexicans tend to give standing ovations for damn near everything. A perfectly respectable but in no way stunning performance of a symphony, opera, play, or recital brings them to their feet. I live here and am a citizen of New Mexico and happy to be one, but I will always be a Californian, OK? I don't get it. This is one of those things that reminds me I am not from here.

So I resist this behavior. I will happily applaud to show my appreciation of a performance but if I am going to stand they bloody well better earn it. I need to be thrilled, moved, exalted... something out of the ordinary to want to rise and show special recognition.

Tonight I could hardly wait to leap to my feet when the play was over. I gushed to some of the Vortex staff and tried not to hold up the director too long to say how fine it was.

So, if you like theatre, if you like Albee, if you like good acting... go see this production.

I am hardly a casual observer. The movie was a scandal when it came out in 1966 and my mother was horrified that I took a nice girl to see it. (We were halfway through college at the time.) You need to have a feel for the bland "niceness" of the 50's to appreciate how much buzz there was over this film with its occasional vulgar language and adult topics- unbelievably tame by today's standards. So it was part of the liberating challenge the 60's gave to my parent's generation. It was powerful, passionate, horrifying, gut-wrenching, and finally tender when one did not expect it.

Though no details remain in my mind there is little doubt that I scoured the bookstores immediately, obtained a copy of the play, and read it. And re-read it. Lines from the play are burned into my memory like phrases from Shakespeare. When George or Martha began a number of lines tonight I could finish them in my mind. ("I am the Earth Mother and you're all flops.") After 43 years, mind you. I may have watched the movie a second time, though I am quite unsure. I have never seen a live performance of the play.

My water-damaged copy of the play (Pocket Books, 75¢) is foxed at the bottom, has portions of the covers ripped off, and has not yellowed but browned, brittle pages. There are underlinings in what was then called peacock blue ink. I read most of the first act before going tonight.

When a play has been made not only into a movie but a notorious, famous, well-received movie - with Taylor and Burton, no less - it is a challenge to actors, directors, and audiences to produce and experience the play outside the framework of the image and memory in everyone's head. It is a mistake to reproduce the film on stage but how does one give it independent life?

I am delighted to say the actors in this production inhabited the play in their own manner, so that one heard Albee's George and Martha and Peter Shea Kierst's George and Debi Kierst's Martha but not reproductions of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I now have fresh images of Martha and George to carry in my head, not to mention the joy of having watched them perform just feet away from me.

They were just amazing: forces of nature, two people engaged in a deadly earnest dance/game of mutual assault with incomprehensible ties under it all. I say "incomprehensible" unless one can appreciate the complexities of life and of human character and interaction. I was impressed as a callow youth but this is really a play for people who have been through the wringer more than once.

Debi and Peter could shift, convincingly, from raw vulnerability to all-out attack. Their Martha and George are people one is not easily inclined to like but one cannot turn away from. The viewer is horrified, entranced, caught up, curious (no matter how well one knows the work).

The program notes that Shakespeare is the first love of Lori Stewart, the director. There was much about this that resembled an excellent Shakespearean production. You know the story, you vaguely remember many of the lines, the characters are old friends (old enemies? old acquaintances?) yet one still wants to see what happens and how it happens. The tale has many layers, the language is rich, and the experience is rewarding time and time again.

Eli Browning as the physical, ambitious Nick and Clara Boling as Honey, Nick's mouse, I mean, spouse, carried out their roles very well also. Eli captures the large (yes, people defer to tall persons in this world), good-looking (ditto) type hoping for preferment and willing to play games to get it. Externally he has it all, but we realize over the course of the evening how trapped and desperate he has let himself become. Clara expresses the perpetually childish, whiny, timid type that annoys the hell out of all the rest of us and reveals her own terrors to become, at last, someone we begin to understand and feel compassion for - even if the role of Honey is one I suspect everyone wants to slap at some point.

Four tragically broken characters, caught in games - in roles - they don't know how to break out of, driven to carry out το παναρχαιο δραμα (the ancient primal drama, to borrow a phrase from Greek poet George Seferis). It is like a Greek tragedy in which, driven by their particular fate, each performs the sacrificial rites that necessity demands while we watch on in horror, all the way to the exorcism, the final sacrifice, and some catharsis that allows us to leave the theatre and go on living with ourselves.

I have one cavil. It is an extremely minor yet integral part of the play. George reads from the Latin Office of the Dead. It was painful to hear, the Latin Consultant notwithstanding. I would assume George, an academic in the history department, would read Latin out loud, particularly Church Latin, in one of three modes: whatever passes for classical Latin, wine country Church Latin, or beer country Church Latin. I have sung in choirs where we sang Latin texts with music by Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven the way Germans pronounce Church Latin and music composed by Verdi, Vivaldi, of Josquin the way Italians pronounce Church Latin. The difference shows in how "c" or "g" sounds when followed by e, i, or ae. Germans use "ts" for such a "c" and a hard "g." Italians use "ch" (as in church) for such a "c" and soft g (as in George) for such a "g." Both pronounce "ae" to rhyme with "day." When I was taking Latin in high school we always used a hard k and hard g sound for c and g and "ae" rhymed with "high." When George was reading I heard a combination of sounds that just seemed weird. And, as I said, painful. I suggest someone who sings Church Latin all the time or an Italian professor help soften this out. THAT is my only gripe, but I'm putting it out there because I was a language major and my companions both saw me wince tonight.

Another bit of praise I must heap on this ensemble: I was so caught up that most of the time I unconsciously set aside awareness that I was observing a performance and felt that I was watching not this actor or that but THIS Martha and THIS George, THIS Honey and THIS Nick.



Go see it.

Vortex tickets are dirt cheap (especially if one is used to buying season tickets in the San Francisco Bay Area with the annual bribe, I mean donation). This is not just a bargain but a helluva experience. Treat yourself.

The Vortex Theatre
2004½ Central Avenue SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106

--the BB

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