27 February 2007

Maybe it's best to be afraid of Virginia Woolf

Berkeley Rep, having apparently presented every play worth doing, turned to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as adapted by Adele Edling Shank for the show I saw last Friday. I can see the interest an artist would have in turning Woolf’s introspective poetic novel, filled with shifting meanings and perceptions, into another form, but I don’t really see that the stage, with its emphasis on dialogue, action, and interaction, is the right form, as opposed to a film or a symphonic treatment. The play is filled not just with soliloquies but with characters turning to the audience and giving them bits of narration, expostulation, and interpretation of other characters as well as of themselves. I should just say right now that the whole thing doesn’t work. If you take a mosaic apart and then put the tesserae back in even a slightly different way, you will end up with a different picture. If an omniscient narrator sidles up to you and tells you that X notices the flowers but Y doesn’t you get one effect; if X has a fleeting thought that she notices the flowers and Y doesn’t you get a different effect; and if X announces in condescending tones to Z that Y never notices the flowers, you get a completely different effect, and one which might say more about X than about Y. This dislocation ends up changing the impressions of the Ramsey family and their guests, and some miscasting doesn’t help either.

Radiance is a lot to require from an actress, but Monique Fowler as Mrs. Ramsey seems too ordinary and self-absorbed to act as the center of this group; the adaptation increases the emphasis on Mrs. Ramsey’s conventional side but misses out on her social work among the poor. Lily Briscoe is supposed to be a bit odd, a bit dry, and not the smiling beauty Rebecca Watson presents. David Mendelsohn as the awkward, striving Charles Tansley looks much too handsome and distinguished for us to understand his position in this socially superior group. During the dinner party scene he wears a suit and tie rather than evening clothes, and he talks to the audience about his father being a chemist (and Shank should really have made the point clear by using American English), but still – he’s dressed for dinner. Most of us don’t even dress for the theater anymore. I don’t think it’s an accident that Woolf has the uncertain Tansley rather than the patriarchal Mr. Ramsey tell Lily women can’t write or paint – his opinion is coming out of his insecurity and lack of social standing. The presentation of Tansley, like the omission of Mrs. Ramsey’s good works among the poor and the omission of Mrs. McNab the housekeeper in the middle section, narrows the scope of Woolf’s novel by avoiding the experiences of the lower classes that she tried to include. (The boeuf en daube is a triumph – how does Mrs. Ramsey do it? they all ask – she does it by having a cook who spends three days under her direction – though I have to say Woolf doesn’t really point out the irony there either.) Mr. Ramsey, the aging philosopher who has, if thought were the alphabet, reached Q if not R, is a figure that one might expect to resonate with a Berkeley audience. Instead he (portrayed by Edmond Genest) is made to look ridiculous. Unless he is an intellectually imposing, distant yet uncertain figure his children’s struggles against him don’t make any sense. When he walks through the garden reciting Tennyson out loud, it’s because he is so intensely absorbed in his inner life that the outer world slips away, not because he’s a mumbling old fool. And the end of the first part of the novel, Woolf’s amazing lyrical crescendo of unspoken depths between the long-married couple, which ends with the clinching evidence of Mrs. Ramsey’s radiant comprehensiveness, turns into a scene of jaw-dropping vulgarity as the Ramseys resolve their standard-issue stage bickering with her exiting while smiling an invitation and Mr. Ramsey jumping up to follow, perkily adjusting his jacket in the expectation that he’s about to Get Some.

And maybe they should have avoided the accents altogether. After hours of fluting, giggling, and archly affected accents I was longing to hear a normal voice. Instead what I got about 20 minutes before the end was a bizarre and inexplicable outburst of song. The thoughts expressed were similar in substance, style, and intensity to those expressed earlier, only they were (poorly) sung, to the inoffensive ineffective music of Paul Dresher. (The composer who should have set Woolf to music is Wagner, with his leitmotivs, his curling pooling melodies, and his psychological insight; one of the amazing things about Woolf’s novel is how she manages to compress without distortion the techniques of Wagner and Proust.) The effect is so bizarre that I felt momentarily giddy. The singing did explain why these Edwardians were all wearing earpiece microphones, though I have to say I am puzzled by the acoustical situation – singers use mikes when they have spoken dialogue, and actors use them when they have to sing – shouldn’t it be one or the other, scientifically speaking, assuming that both houses are roughly the same size? The sudden use of song, the narration delivered directly to the audience, and the many projections all seem like efforts to expand the stage to encompass the world of Woolf’s novel, but they’re also a way of pointing out that the usual resources of the stage can’t really handle this material.

The play’s failure to present Woolf’s work accurately or adequately wouldn’t matter so much if it created something different, if not necessarily better. But what we have is a simplified, distorted view of Woolf’s novel that at some key points doesn’t even make sense unless you’re familiar with the source (it’s not clear that Andrew Ramsey is killed in the war and that Prue dies in childbirth around the same time, something that could have been made clear with a few lines of dialogue – the point is further confused by having the actors who played Andrew and Prue show up at the end as the older James and Cam, on their way to the lighthouse at last). This adaptation isn’t a disaster on the order of TheaterWork’s vandalism a few years ago of My Antonia, but to make the point I made afterwards about that fiasco, the novel is not that long, and if you took the travel time plus the running time of the play and just a fraction of what you would spend on the ticket and transportation, you could buy and read the book and have a much richer aesthetic and intellectual experience. In the meantime, Berkeley Rep may want to look into, oh, Shakespeare or someone, whose stuff actually works on stage.

2 comments:

sfmike said...

Good review. I had a friend who saw it on Friday also and the operatics at the end left him completely alienated and flabbergasted. Plus, he didn't know why the play didn't work, but you certainly do.

Didn't make it to "Sleeping Beauty" tonight as I'm feeling cultured out. Meet you later.

pjwv said...

The funny thing about the outburst of song is that it achieved the Brechtian alienation effect in a way that the songs in Brecht's Mother Courage back in September did not. I had been hoping for the best after a weak Hedda Gabler on Thursday night, but no such luck.

I enjoyed the ballet very much but if I hadn't already bought an expensive ticket I would have stayed home last night too. I did look for the guy with the cameral. . .