Beware of the Woolf

Two marriages.  One is irrevocably broken and the other should never have been.  One night the two couples trapped in these marriages get together after a faculty party.  The older couple, George & Martha, engage in a war of words that devolves into a hideous game of one-upmanship in which the younger couple, Nick & Honey, become unwilling pawns.  This is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opening Friday in the Howard Drew Theatre at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Edward Albee’s ability with the written word is second to none.  His writing is lyrical, almost operatic, as each scene is a movement that slowly builds onto the previous until the work reaches its epic crescendo.  To that end, director Hilary Adams has conducted an absolute masterpiece with this work.  Every nuance is so rich and subtle.  Each discovery is fresh and wonderful.  All the actors are so vibrant and mesmerizing.  Mark my words, this play is going to go down as one of the great classics in the illustrious history of the Playhouse.

Passive-aggression, thy name is George.  Brennan Thomas plays this role in the same fashion a violin virtuoso plays a Stradivarius.  Utilizing a clean, simple delivery, Thomas’ George comes off as a quiet, soft-spoken man.  But this soft-spoken nature barely covers a smoldering cauldron of anger and frustration that peeks out when George lets his emotions get the better of him.

Thomas skillfully and nimbly dances from beat to beat and each comment and revelation from George is extemporaneous and original as a result of Thomas’ fine work.  Thomas’ George is quite smug and smarmy.  He knows a lot of fifty dollar words and fires them like bullets from a gun at whoever raises his ire or simply because he can.  However, he also has an unbelievably fragile ego.  Despite his disdain towards his wife, Martha, her opinion actually means something as he melts down like a child when she presses just the right button.  And, like a child, he decides to retaliate with such games as Get the Guests, Hump the Hostess, and a tragically final endgame in Bringing Up Baby.  The only thing keeping Thomas’ performance from perfection is that he needs to increase his volume.  At some points, he was so whisper quiet that it would have been impossible to hear him if not for his naturally strong and carrying voice.

Charleen Willoughby has a career defining performance in the role of Martha.  Ms Willoughby’s Martha is a two fisted drunk and she is only too happy to pummel you with those fists.  As Martha, Ms Willoughby unintentionally fires the first rounds of the war with George by breaking their cardinal rule. . .she talks about their son with Honey.  But she doesn’t shy away from the fight and she fights dirty.

Ms Willoughby is at turns cruel, vixenish, pitiable, and heartbreaking.  With ease, her Martha mocks her husband’s first novel and scoffs at Nick’s inability to “get it up”.  She flirts with and seduces Nick in a very intense makeout session that will make people blush.  She engages in a haunting monologue at the top of Act III where she plays both sides of a conversation with George that shows a longing for something better and she ends the play tragically broken as a result of Bringing Up Baby that will leave you in tears.

There are not enough superlatives to describe Megan Friend’s performance as Honey.  Her talent is simply staggering.  Ms Friend plays Honey as a flakey, less than intelligent, overgrown party girl.  She arrives at the party slightly stewed and is five sheets to the wind by the end of the show.  Honey’s drunkenness is deftly essayed with a loose, awkward body language and spectacularly slurred speech.  Ms Friend also adds a stunning sympathy factor to the role.  You cannot help, but feel sorry at her inability to recognize George’s mockery of her or ignore the sympathy that comes with the understanding of the tragedy that drives her behavior.

I salute Steve Hartman’s heroics in stepping into the role of Nick at the 11th hour.  Hartman replaced the original actor last Friday, leaving him less than a week to prepare this difficult and arduous character.  His performance is not as polished as the other three due to his limited prep time, but he has done some truly excellent work in the short time he had to get ready and this includes the Herculean task of memorizing a sizable chunk of dialogue in 6 days.  By the end of this run, Hartman’s work will easily be on the level of the other 3 actors.

Hartman brings an energy to the role of Nick.  A young genius who got his Master’s degree at the age of 19, Hartman’s Nick is determined to make the most of his career.   He attends this get-together simply because George is a respected associate professor and Martha is the daughter of the university president.  Hartman comes off as politely aloof, at first, as he makes small talk and deflects George’s subtle barbs.  But he’s also got a spine and will stand up for himself as well as defend his wife’s honor, even though it’s implied that he didn’t marry Honey out of love. As the night’s drinking takes effect, Hartman peels off the aloofness and reveals some rather unsavory qualities of Nick such as his eager willingness to take revenge on George by sleeping with Martha, simultaneously revealing that he’s not very dedicated to Honey.  Hartman’s Nick can also be a bit childish such as his excuses for his poor performance in Martha’s bed and his petulant demands that Martha not call him a houseboy (the penalty for the bad performance) in front of George.

Jim Othuse has designed a lovely living room set for this play and Darin Kuehler’s properties give it just the right touch of home.

Albee had a knack for revealing the uglier side of human nature in his writings and this play is certainly no exception.  Yet, in all of the ugliness, there is still a tiny glimmer of hope that these characters can overcome their situations.  The show is an exhausting and emotional roller coaster ride and the audience will be just as exhausted as the actors by the end of it.

“Truth or illusion”, says Martha.  The illusion that is this play actually reveals a lot of truth about the human condition.  You will be changed by watching it and that is what great drama does.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse from May 8-June 7.  Showtimes are 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets prices are $36 for adults and $22 for students.  Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com or call 402-553-0800.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.  This show contains strong language and adult situations and is  meant for mature audiences.

A Season of Change, Part IV: Is There a Woolf at the Door?

“The wonderful joy at being able to say ‘yes’ to a talented artist is often undercut by the horrible responsibility of having to say ‘no’ so many more times to equally talented artists.”—Unknown

I don’t envy the lot of directors when it comes to casting.  As difficult as things are on the acting side, there is also a tremendous amount of difficulty on the casting side.  Getting just the right blend of performers to tell the best possible story is truly an art form and I believe the above quotation best reflects the plight of directors.

Having to break a lot of hearts is not fun.  I’m also certain the criticism for doing so is even less enjoyable.

“It’s not fair.”

“He/she hates me.”

“It’s all politics and favoritism.”

I’m certain directors have heard variations of the above remarks and then some on numerous occasions.  Sometimes the criticism may be well founded and true.  But, by and large, I believe a director’s choices are impersonal and rejection simply comes from the fact that you did not suit the director’s vision.  This is something I’ve grown to understand and appreciate more over the last year and a half since I became an independent theatre critic.  I’ve grown to appreciate it so much that I’m thinking about trying my hand at direction one day, so if any of my director friends are reading this and are interested in letting me shadow them for a show next season, drop me a line.

I once read an article by a director who said, “I hate that experienced, talented actors can see whether or not they get cast as a measure of their intrinsic worth as actors”.  Truer words were never spoken.  This is the only business I know where you can be a failure and a success all at the same time.  But I’d also like to take a moment to try to respond to that statement.

The reason actors see the casting as the yardstick of their worth as performers is that it is the only validation we have of our skills.  Sometimes a rejection can be done in such a way that it almost completely salves the disappointment of not getting the job.  But the bottom line is if we’re not the ones on stage or in front of the camera telling the story, we instinctively feel as if we failed even if we intellectually know that the work we did in the audition was good.  After all, everyone likes to taste the fruit of their labors.

Now I’ve told you all that to set the stage for my latest theatre tale.

After the victorious defeat of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I began preparing for a return to the Playhouse with an audition for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  For me, it would be my first audition under the new Playhouse artistic director, Hilary Adams.

I knew the odds would be long going into this show.  The show is only a 4 person cast and there is only one role for a younger man.  Knowing that up front actually took a considerable amount of pressure from my shoulders.  I headed into the audition solely with the intention of making a good showing and leaving with my head held high.  Anything else would simply be icing on the cake.

The turnout was smaller than I expected, but still more than enough to be able to cast the show from our night alone.  As I glanced around the room, I knew the role of Nick (the one I was eligible for) could be cast three times over at a minimum as I noticed both Nick Zadina and Sean, who read so well for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in attendance along with myself.

Under Hilary’s leadership, auditions have changed at the Playhouse and I would say for the better.  Now pictures of the actors are taken to go along with their audition information sheets.  Hilary also prefers to bring the performers in as small groups.  I think this brings a double edged advantage to the actors as they not only know that they have the director’s full attention, but I think it unleashes their creativity to the Nth degree.  They do not have to worry that their interpretation is similar to another performer’s.  Every actor can be secure in the knowledge that everything done in the audition will be perceived as completely original.

I ended up being in the second group called in to audition.  It was an older gent named Lance and myself who would be reading the roles of George and Nick.

This first read presented one of the interesting challenges of the audition process as actors of varying levels of talent are often paired together.  My partner was very inexperienced and it showed.  When experienced/naturally talented performers work together, the energy of the performance is like a ball that’s tossed around in a game of hot potato.  Toss in an inexperienced/less talented person and it’s like throwing a ball against a wall and watching it drop.

Before we began reading, Hilary made the interesting request for us not to block anything.  Another hurdle removed as some performers are so intent on the words that movement sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

The pressure was really on George in this side as he has the bulk of the dialogue and gets the ball rolling.  Lance read and it sounded like reading as well.  For my own part, I was pleased with my work.  I fired the ball with energy, made some decisive choices about Nick, and presented a character I liked.  I did find it humorous that in the back of my head I kept thinking, “Oh, this feels like a movement line.  That feels like another.  There’s a third.”

About a half hour later, I was called in again.  This time I read with two people.  A man named Jeremy would read as George and Sydney Readman would read as Nick’s wife, Honey.  This time I felt that ball being tossed around.  Jeremy had some nice chops and instincts and had a really rich speaking voice.

Again I was pleased with my work and really enjoyed the byplay between the three of us in the scene.  After we had read it once, Hilary asked us to read it again, but gave some direction to Sydney and me.  For Nick, she wanted me to make him “more beta and less alpha”.  She explained that at this early stage, Nick wouldn’t be standing up to George quite so much.  This was a business meeting and Nick is trying to make a good impression.  She also asked me to be a bit more loving towards Honey.  I processed these changes and gave a more beta interpretation.  Though in hindsight, I think I should have kissed Sydney’s hand to seem more loving.  The words had the right intention and I did tenderly clasp her arm, but my gut says a stronger action should have been used.

Twenty minutes after the read, Jeannine Robertson, the Playhouse’s Artistic Administrative Assistant, told me that Hilary had seen all she needed from me and that I could go home.  I had been there for 2 ½ hours, read three times, and took some direction.  All in all, the signs of a very positive audition.  Callbacks would be on Saturday so I knew if I didn’t get notification by the end of Friday, I could officially consider myself out of the running.  I had nothing to be ashamed of as I accomplished my main task.  I had a good showing and, hopefully, gave Hilary something to remember for future auditions.

Regrettably, I did not receive that callback.  Fortunately, I was braced for it, but it’s still a mild disappointment.  But I did the best I could with the material I had.  The only regret, as it were, was that I would have liked to have read a meatier side for Nick.  Then I would have known that I had truly given it all that I had.

With such a small cast, other good actors also, unfortunately, heard the word, ‘no’ for this one, too.  And, believe me, there was some heavyweight talent that did not make it in.  Let me see if these numbers put it in perspective.  Four people heard the word ‘yes’.  At least twenty others heard the word ‘no’.  Chew on that for a bit.

While there’s no Woolf at the door for me, I do remain content that there will be something for me in the future.  A friend once told me that becoming a stronger actor doesn’t mean the number of roles you obtain goes up.  It just means that the quality of your rejections goes up.  With some of my adventures over the past couple of years, I think there’s quite a bit of truth to that statement.  But, if I may add to his statement, I think the quality of the rewards goes up, too, and that’s something all actors should keep in mind.

Until the next time.