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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Monday Dec 12, 2016
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Boston theater fans have probably heard about the Lyric's upcoming production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," which turns out to be a timely tribute to playwright Edward Albee, who died in September at the age of 88. But don't miss your chance to experience Psych Drama Company's immersive production of the same Albee play, which concludes its too-brief run next weekend at the The United Parish of Brookline, located at 210 Harvard Street in Brookline (The same venue, as it happens, that's currently hosting the Actors' Shakespeare Project's "The Tempest").

Albee's has a way of making his characters sound as though they are speaking their darkest, most suppressed thoughts out loud. That's certainly the case here as long-haired George (Cliff Blake) and Martha (Wendy Lippe), who are personally and professionally tied to academic life at a university, draw another faculty couple -- the much younger Nick (Victor Kholod) and Honey (Kelly Young) -- into the complexities of their love/hate relationship.

The two couples meet up at the ill-advised hour of 2 a.m., after having already attended a faculty party where they first meet. The driving impetus here is Martha's sexual interest in Nick, a biologist who defies the stereotype of the wispy, socially awkward scientist. George, who seemingly is well-used to being bossed around and humiliated by the strong-willed and caustic Martha, responds with a mixture of bravado and passive-aggressive vengeance; Honey, Nick's sweet and sharper-than-she-seems wife, self-medicates as Martha puts the moves on Nick right in front of her.

In fact, all four characters make frequent trips to the bar, each guzzling his or her own spirit of choice: Gin, bourbon, and brandy are all on offer, and as the booze flows the intercourse (or various sorts) gets wilder and more reckless. Nick and Honey are caught in George and Martha's emotional vortex, but they don't pack up and leave; whether they are tourists in these emotional badlands or Stockholm Syndrome-afflicted hostages, the young couple seem fascinated despite themselves, unable to tear themselves away as the evening's events grow ever uglier and scalding truths emerge on all sides.

This production lost both of its male cast members shortly before premiering, so Blake and Kholod carry scripts in hand, and reference the pages as needed. That doesn't much detract from their performances (though on occasion Kholod does sound as though he's reading his lines aloud without interpreting them or giving them any emotional weight - a minor and intermittent distraction). No, the two actors are not entirely off book, but it's amazing how close they are to it given how little time they've had to rehearse and memorize.

In fact, the presence of the scripts only adds something to the way the play is presented, which is to incorporate the audience into the performance space as though they are invisible spectators in George and Martha's living room. Or maybe not so invisible; from time to time, a character will make eye contact with an audience member, explaining or justifying his or her point of view with a "Can you believe this?" manner, which creates a distinct bond between player and observer while somehow not rupturing our suspension of disbelief.

Crucially, this involves the audience in the quartet's ever-more-tightly shared mental state in much the same way that George and Martha's strange, all-consuming combat zone of a marriage swallows Nick and Honey. How do we feel about all this? What do we think about the complaints and anecdotes, and the facts and fantasies, we're hearing? We become part of the production in a lively and even thrilling way.

There's a free-for-all feeling about this production, a liberating sense of embracing rough edges. It's hard to tell which elements of the scenic design were planned and which are mere serendipity. The stains on the carpet could be a matter of using whatever could be scavenged -- or they could also be symbolic of the marriage that dwells in this living space, something worn in and worn out well past the stage of being comfortable, and right up to the red zone where threadbare verges on spontaneous dissolution.

The actors wend, stomp, and even dance among the scattered chairs and sofas that serve as audience seating as well as set pieces. In the end, we're caught in the web of this production's vision and energy as surely as flies in a spider's parlor -- and it's an illuminating, terrifying place to be.

Each show has an hour-long post-discussion component. Don't think you're getting out of it: The conversation begins the moment the final bows are taken. Sit back, surrender, and get caught up in Albee's wild, yet precise, architecture of madness and meaning.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" plays December 16 and 17 at 7:30 pm at The United Parish of Brookline, 210 Harvard Street, Brookline, For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.thepsychdramacompany.com.

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