Sunday, October 25, 2009

Theatre Notes: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Soulpepper, Toronto)

A night in domestic hell with the worst hosts imaginable, Edward Albee's 1962 classic play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a daunting challenge. Especially so, considering the fact that everyone knows the great performances that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton gave in the great Mike Nichols film. The Soulpepper Theatre's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is currently running in downtown Toronto, and they have acquitted themselves brilliantly.

The last play we saw was the Soulpepper production of Antigone, which suffered greatly from overplaying on the part of the actors, probably at the behest of the director. In this case, the lead actors are all strong and play somewhat over-the-top characters in a very naturalistic style. Diego Matamoros and Nancy Palk, as the middle aged bourgeois couple, George and Martha, are well-matched and spar wonderfully. Their body language is expert- it's rare that you see a play so well choreographed. As the younger couple, Tim Campbell and Diana Donnelly are both amusing comedic relief and a good counterpoint for their older hosts.

The set design, by Astrid Janson who also designed the costumes, is classic but skewed. The floor is at a slope, so the dark red leather couch seems like a roller coaster seat. There are several painted bookcases sprawling up the set like temple pillars, all of them identical and topped with portraits of George and Martha Washington. The period details are spot on and the vermilion walls remind you of bloodstains, appropriately enough.

Albee's play maintains a high level of stress and intensity for three full acts, in which the domineering wife and her passive-aggressive academic husband tear strips off each others' psyches, while maintaining a low level proxy war with the younger generation. Countering the technocratic biologist whelp against his aged, wiser but deeply cynical historian counterpart, Albee is able to herald the sun that is about to set on booming post-war culture, while questioning if the future will really be progress.

And they drink. His Americans drink themselves into dizzy delusions about their comfortable lives and play games in which the stakes are high in spite of the characters having little left to lose.

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