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Who's Afraid of the Vagaries of Live Theater? Not Psych Drama Company!

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Dec 14, 2016

Theater lore is full of stories of the happy accident, the disaster that somehow turned into a blessing, the wrong turn that led someplace exciting; so it was for the Psych Drama Company when, a week before putting up their production of Edward Albee's complex, and lengthy, drama "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," they lost the actors for both male roles.

It's not as though there weren't already some drama surrounding the... well... the drama, which is so well-regarded that it has achieved the status of a classic. With Albee's death in September -- even as Psych Drama Company was rehearsing the play with its original cast still, at that point, intact -- there was bound to be additional interest in the show.

Dr. Wendy Lippe, founder and Artistic Director for Psych Drama Company, was suddenly in the sort of position everyone finds herself in at one time or another -- living through a highly uncertain situation that was sure to make for a good story later on, but was, perhaps, not such a joy to have to untangle then and there in the moment.

With the play's short run of only eight performances over three weekends already two-thirds done, area audiences are running out of time to immerse themselves in the production -- pretty much literally; the play is staged in a space that's very much like a living room... the very living room where the action unfolds over a long and dark night of the soul for the play's four characters.

George and Martha are a long-time married couple with a raft of -- well, let's call them "issues," and leave it at that for now. Nick and Honey are a younger couple whom George and Martha have only just met. Their late-night cocktails lead into the sort of drunken abandon that you're going to have forgotten come the morning, or at least pretend you have forgotten about. And the audience? The audience is seated right in the midst of the action, so embroiled in the booze-fueled proceedings that you might very well find yourself wishing you could hop up and take the few steps over to the drinks cart to pour your own libation.

This is experimental theater, but it's also pretty much the way the Psych Drama Company operates. Even so, Dr. Lippe -- who plays one of the play's four characters, that of Martha -- tells EDGE in the interview below that this particular production was especially intense. Read on for more, now that the story can be told.


EDGE: This is quite a moment with regard to Edward Albee and his canon; The Lyric Stage is also producing 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' next month, and Albee himself died a couple of months ago, which has brought renewed focus on his work. How did Psych Drama Company come to produce 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' just now?

Wendy Lippe: It's really interesting how the whole thing played out. We always choose psychologically intense pieces that are going to stir people up. We want to have people really reflecting on their lives and their relationships. We always set [our plays] in intimate settings, so we've been at the [now defunct] Factory Theater in the past -- we had our 'No Exit' production there -- and we did a production of 'Hamlet' at the Boston Center for the Arts, in a very intimate black box in three-quarter round [configuration]; and we had an intimate black box space for our production of '[A] Streetcar [Named Desire]' that was in Rhode Island. That's always out aesthetic; we never want to use a proscenium stage. We always want to have the audience very close in to the action.

But this was the closest. We've never done something quite like this before.

EDGE: As you say, your production is experimental in terms of how immersive it is. What's behind this choice?

Wendy Lippe: I think a couple of factors came together to make this choice. The first one is just that since the Factory Theater closed, there's been this crunch for small theater companies. We're having a lot of difficulty finding places to perform, and the Factory Theater was a hub for so many small theater companies. So I began a search thinking about where are we going to be producing out next play, while also having a few plays in mind. One was 'Long Day's Journey Into Night,' and another was 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.' We were also planning to re-mount our 'Streetcar' production in Boston, because it was such a success in Rhode Island.

As I was looking at spaces, I was holding these productions in mind... and I walked into this parlor space at the United Parish Church, and I thought -- [Gasps] - 'Omigod, this is a living room! A very large living room, but it's a living room.' The larger theater space that they had downstairs, where the Actors' Shakespeare Project is producing 'The Tempest,' was taken, and it was also not the kind of space that we would ever perform in because we always do these more intimate, experimental sorts of spaces. I said, 'Wait a second: This is really interesting. Martha and George are in a living room. What if the audience is in the living room with them?' I started to get excited about all of the possibilities.

EDGE: The two male actors originally cast in the play both left the production a week before it went up.

Wendy Lippe: Not only did we have to replace two of our actors, but we also had to bring on a new consulting director. The loss of the director was as much about their wish to postpone the show, given the sudden loss of the actors; they very much wanted to re-cast, take our time, to do the show without script in hand. We'd been through a rehearsal process where [Kelly Young, who plays] Honey and I really just felt ready to do the show, and we felt that having actors on script -- really talented actors -- would add the kind of raw edge to the production. If we could just get the relationships going, and the connections between the actors, we hoped it wouldn't be too much of an interference for the production. We were hoping that would be part of the chaos of the show.

EDGE: When asked at the post-show talkback about the need for this last-minute re-casting, the cast just sort of giggled nervously... is this something you just can't talk about?

Wendy Lippe: I don't think it's wise to talk about it, because I think... there were conflicts, and we certainly want to be respectful of people and their reputations in the theater community. I wouldn't want to say anything that could be hurtful. But it was a difficult time for the cast. There were personality clashes and artistic clashes and promises that were made, people who thought that they could do certain kinds of things that they really couldn't do... [Laughs] Isn't that what 'Virginia Woolf' is all about?

[Laughter]

EDGE: So how did Cliff Blake and Victor Kholod end up becoming part of the production at the eleventh hour, the way they did?

Wendy Lippe: Cliff Blake is an actor I've worked with in the past. He was in Psych Drama's inaugural production, of 'Hamlet' at the Boston Center for the Arts, and I just knew from having worked with Cliff that he was an incredible actor who gives so much, and is so generous -- even when he's on script, even during rehearsals. And you saw that: He's so present, and he's so connected with the other actors. I knew he would be fabulous.

And Lida McGirr, our consulting director, who also stepped in at he eleventh hour, also knew Cliff and also had worked with him. It was six degrees of separation, and people who had worked together in the past and knew that they could really trust each other on stage, and I think that really helped.

Victor was a surprise. I was getting some programs and things printed at FedEx Kinko's, and I know some people there because I frequent the business, and they said, 'Oh, you look kind of stressed out.' I said, 'Well, here's our situation... we've replaced one actor; we may have replace another -- we're not yet sure.' That was still in discussion [at that point]. 'And it's just a very stressful time because I'd like the production to go forward.' As you said, it's an interesting time [for this play] because of Albee's recent passing. So it felt important to me that we get an experimental production up and running now. I didn't want to postpone the performance.

So one of the guys at FedEx Kinko's said, 'You know, I have a good friend who I think -- from what I remember of the play and how you're describing the character of Nick -- might be a good fit for you. He's spent a lot of time in Boston, he was at BU, and he recently transplanted to New York, and he's looking for acting work.' It was just serendipitous. I got on the phone with Victor literally two hours later, and then twenty-four hours later he was on a bus from New York City to Boston.

EDGE: Physically, he's not anything like the way we hear Nick described; Nick is supposed to be this big, brawny footballer who played quarterback, and Victor Kholod is a slender guy. I wouldn't call him slight, but he's not this hulking fellow we imagine Nick should be... and yet, Victor has a presence that gives you that kind of read on the character so he doesn't ring false in the role.

Wendy Lippe: Right, and it's interesting how that can happen. In our 'Streetcar' production, Steve Sacchetti, who played Stanley, was a very slight guy. There was a concern that I had about having him cast, but the director, Nick Meunier, very much wanted him to play Stanley, and one of the things the reviewer commented on was how brilliant Steve's performance was. When he came out on stage, the reviewer said, there's no way! There's no way he's going to convince me that he's Stanley. And then he went on to talk about how Nick's physique disappeared as an issue because of what he brought to the role. He wrote a rave review about Steve Sacchetti, who does not look at all like a Stanley -- that would be the furthest thing from your mind as far as his physicality. It's really amazing when actors can do that.

EDGE Along the same lines, Cliff Blake has a lively physical interpretation when it comes to George: Really funny, complex, sometimes charming -- sometimes frightening. Was that mostly coming from him, or was that part of what Lida McGirr looked to see in the part when she came on board as consulting director?

Wendy Lippe: It was a mixture of how Cliff saw the role, how Lida directed him, and also what Honey and I had been used to in terms of working with a George. We have been experimental in not only the staging of the show, but in terms of the characters. We wanted them to be different from what you usually see, and some of the ways that we were interacting with George were affecting some of the choices that he made. It was a combination of things that came together in a way that really worked.

EDGE: And speaking of Nick's wife Honey, I can't overlook Kelly Young, who plays that part. She's so terrific! I'm guessing that her casting was not as dramatic a story as the others?

Wendy Lippe: No. Oh my god, I'll never forget when Kelly came in. We couldn't stop laughing. She was just fabulous, and we just loved her. She's a dreamboat to work with; she's lovely, and she's reliable; she learned her lines when she said she was going to learn them. She showed up to rehearsal when she said she would be there -- she's wonderful and she's a phenomenal actress! It took me so long in rehearsal not to break out into hysterical laughter watching her. We were very lucky to find Kelly, and we hope to continue to work with her. She's just really dynamite.

EDGE: You play Martha. Why did you decide to take that role yourself?

Wendy Lippe: You know, I think I must have had some sense when I initially read the script again after all these years that it tapped into my own personal current struggles. For the play is about love, and long-term relationships, and the disappointment that we face, and the frustrations that we face with our own selves and with the people we're involved with intimately. Ultimately, it's our own demons we are seeking to heal through these relationships with others, but it doesn't really work. I think when I read the play I wasn't conscious of this at first, but I became conscious of it pretty soon; we started rehearsing in mid-September, and I thought, 'Wow: I'm aware of this. Not exactly as Martha expresses it -- I hope not! -- but there's something about this woman's struggles that I really connect with.'

I think Martha very much has ideas about who George should be, and the success that he should be, in order to make her feel better about herself; I think her early family of origin issues, having lost her mother early in life, and -- I believe -- having a father who never really did give her the time of day, being preoccupied with his wife's death and then with his own career, I think he really didn't pay much attention to Martha. So she talks on and on in this idealized way about him, but I think it's quite false. I think Albee intended us to see that. I think she was really hoping to find a way to live vicariously though somebody who would make her feel important, and help her heal some of those feelings of being unloved and abandoned. George's success would be that for her; of course, he fails, and he fails, and he fails, but she keeps trying to get him to be the man that she envisioned.

So I think not directly does this reflect my life -- certainly not; it's not the narrative of my life -- but it does tap into those deep family of origin feelings and those present-day close relationships with friends and colleagues and partners, where we're all struggling with those issues.

EDGE: I think you'd said you wanted to talk a little more about the timing of the production and Albee's death?

Wendy Lippe: We had just started rehearsing in mid-September, but we had cast our roles before the summer. We had done early casting because we wanted people to be off book, and George has a huge role. (It didn't end up playing out that way.)

It's a really interesting story: We were in rehearsal, and we were rehearsing the initial scene between George and Martha in a way that was playing with subtext. It was not the way we were going to perform it, and it had nothing to do with what was written; it was play, like you do in rehearsals, and we said, 'Let's just try this to see what we might discover.' It was so much fun, and we were just really exploring the subtext. And all of a sudden, our first Nick -- because this was in mid-September [before Victor Kholod took over the role] -- said that he'd just received a tweet on his phone that Albee had died. And all just froze.

It was a very eerie moment, because I'm sure you know the history with Edward Albee, that... I think he's the greatest American playwright of all time, but he was very, very strict, particularly with Equity houses. We're semi-professional, we are not Equity. But Equity houses had to get their lighting approved by him; their costume design; their set; their cast; everything had to be approved by him, and he was very, very rigid in terms of letting other creative artists bring their creativity to that script. He really preferred staged readings, where people would just stand at a podium and read his work. He did not like it when other people brought their creativity. The gay performance that was mentioned [in the post-show discussion the night this EDGE correspondent attended the play] was canceled by Edward Albee, who would not let the production move forward. In his contract he insisted that all of the genders remain as they are intended to be. Even as a gay man himself, he would not allow that gay production to move forward, and he canceled it right before the opening of the show.

So, you know, we wanted, of course, to be respectful; we loved the play. But it suddenly occurred to us... like, I said, 'Oh my god, I feel like I just killed Edward Albee!' Because here we had been in this rehearsal, just allowing ourselves to play... again, nothing that we would have put on stage... and we felt like had he been at the rehearsal, he would have had a heart attack!

[Laughter]

I've been in correspondence with Andrea Shay from WBUR, and she just emailed me today wondering about how the Psych Drama Company might come together with the Lyric Stage to do a feature, even after our show closes, just to talk about these issues regarding Edward Albee and to talk about how future productions may be affected since he's no longer with us. It's a very difficult conversation to have, and I think it has to be handles sensitively because I'm in awe, as most of the world is, of Edward Albee, and at the same time he had this very scary way of limiting other artists' creativity. How do we talk about that in a way that is productive and that is helpful and respectful, and that potentially unleashes some very needed creative energy?

EDGE: It's a shame this production has such a brief run and has such limited audience sizes. What are you thinking about doing next? I know that the Psych Drama Company only does one play most seasons. Will that remain true this season?

Wendy Lippe: We do want to go back and do 'Streetcar' again, and we hope to do it in a more experimental fashion than we did before. I expect that probably will go up about a year from now. Unfortunately, because of my work demands, and [those of] other people in the company, and funding issues, we just don't have the funding or the hours in the day, at this stage in our development as a company, to do more than one or two productions in a year. My guess is it will probably be a year from now, but if we have some kind of luck strike, it could be sooner.

EDGE Either way, nothing is going to happen to Tennessee Williams now that anyone can pin on you.

[Laughter]

Wendy Lippe: What we've learned from this production is, with live theater you just never know what's going to happen! If you just embrace it, magic can happen.


"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" runs for three more performances: Dec. 16 and 17 at 7:30 p.m., plus a performance on Sunday, Dec. 18, at 6:30 p.m., at the United Parish of Brookline, located at 210 Harvard Street in Brookline. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.thepsychdramacompany.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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