Monday, February 02, 2009

The Women’s Project Presents Freshwater

When I first got word that there would be a first-ever professional production of Virginia Woolf’s only play, Freshwater, I was cautiously excited. It could be terrific; it could go so wrong in so many ways.

Freshwater is a farce, a little drawing room romp, that Woolf wrote for her niece Angelica’s birthday party. The inside jokes are thick and fast: Bloomsburies played on the roles of their Victorian elders. The characters are Julia Margaret Cameron, the great Victorian photographer (and Woolf’s great-aunt); her husband, Charles Hay Cameron; the painter George Frederick Watts; his child-bride Ellen Terry; Tennyson, and Lt. John Craig, the only character not based in history.

While Tennyson, the Camerons, and Watts expound on the purity and beauty of art (with Tennyson quoting himself often and at length), Ellen Terry chafes under the strictures of a life that is bohemian and strangely dull. She jumps at the chance to escape to Bloomsbury where she and her beau will dine on sausages and kippers, far from any nightingale’s song.

But allusions to “Maud” are just not hilarious to most people and there is little more tiresome than going to the theater to congratulate yourself on what a clever little English major you are. Director Anne Bogart, dramaturg Megan Carter (who came to talk to my class on Friday!! Thank you!), and the rest of the cast and crew have figured out ways to translate Woolf's highbrow farce for a 21st century audience. In doing so, they show us how funny Woolf can be, and, more importantly, have created a really fun, happy bon bon of a show.

This charming production begins with the glorious set: step off the frigid streets into the tiny, dark lobby of the Julia Miles Theater, and then, into the house itself to see James Schuette’s joyous set, lit like a summer’s day, festooned with a crazy amateurish patchwork curtain, sewn together from dozens of primary-colored pillowcases. The amazing Akiko Aizawa, playing the maid, sets the merry tone: she marches back and forth across the stage, military style, only to look out, sternly counting the audience and then, suddenly, girlishly, to break character, giggle and point, as if at friends and family. Meanwhile the actors backstage whisper and hush each other. It feels as much like being at a village pageant or a local theatrical as possible.

Then, out pops the daffy Gian Murray Gianino, in full Gilbert and Sullivan style military garb to sing “All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor.”
All the nice girls love a sailor
All the nice girls love a tar
For there's something about a sailor
(Well you know what sailors are!)
It’s very hard not to smile. What a relief! Hilarious and delightful, the show continues, drawing from vaudeville, music hall and Monty Python to make sure that even long parodic speeches on the importance of art are full of pratfalls and laughter.

The show is funny and meant to be, but it also makes pointed fun of the self-absorption of artists. Woolf admired artistic dedication, but, as director Anne Bogart pointed out in the talk-back after the show, it’s also about not hurting others in the pursuit of art. For this, the youthful Ellen Terry is our guide: she is bored, posing for a painting, and no one cares. It’s one thing for Watts to dedicate his life to perfecting a painting, but quite another to demand his wife spend her days perfectly still. This is the comic version of Woolf’s critique of Milton and Carlyle.

I have a lot more to say, but other things in my day are calling. You can read reviews in Variety and the New York Times.

“Freshwater” is playing in limited run until February 15. There are discounts available, but even the full-priced tickets are an affordable $42. It’s a little dose of summer in midwinter. Do go!

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