Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Red One Theatre Collective)

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Red One Theatre Collective in Toronto invigorates Edward Albee’s classic comedy-drama with dynamic realism

Red One Theatre Collective’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is currently playing at The Storefront Theatre and it is a force to be reckoned with. Edward Albee’s comedy-drama about the brutal inner workings of a dysfunctional marriage is over fifty years old now, but you’d never know it. It’s as funny, harrowing and relevant now as it was in 1962.

George and Martha, a middle-aged couple, stumble home from a campus party early one morning. He’s a history professor and she’s the daughter of the college president. They are, to put it mildly, discontented. They invite a young couple, a new professor at the college and his wife, Nick and Honey, over for a post-party gathering at their home. It all starts out civilly, but as the liquor flows and secrets are revealed, things turn vicious.

This is one of my favourite plays and it was a thrill for me to finally see it performed live. Having read it and seen the Mike Nichols film many times, I’m familiar enough with the text and action to anticipate my favourite bits. But when the lights came up, boy… all my expectations went out the window! This wasn’t just the play I know; these were real people hacking away at each other and I feared for them—body and soul.

Director Tyrone Savage leads his cast towards a naturalistic truth instead of melodrama. The dialogue and it’s emotional brutality could easily be played up, but it isn’t required here. In the hands of this top-notch cast, the plain and honest truth of this story is thrilling enough. There are, of course, loud and grotesque moments, but they never seemed overblown for effect. They spring, shrieking, out of these four people as their civility unravels before us.

George and Martha are played by real life husband and wife, Janet-Laine Green and Booth Savage. (They are also the director’s parents). It’s worth noting, I suppose, to add intrigue to the production, but I feel somewhat cheap in doing so. It doesn’t really matter what their offstage situation is because, here, they are George and Martha.

Their shared history is an almost tangible presence. They seem to provoke each other by just being there. She struts around brazenly and berates him for being a personal and professional failure. He cowers and deflects, getting in several good barbs about her heavy drinking and lechery. Underneath his hunched shoulders and her vulgarity, you can sense a game afoot. As awful as they can be to each other, despite the gaping wounds, they love this battle… and each other.

But their poor guests! At first, they’re just trying to remain polite as their hosts jab at each other, but they are soon caught up in the drama as their own marital troubles are brought to light. Benjamin Blais and Claire Armstrong perfectly capture that deer-caught-in-headlights experience of socially well-trained people suddenly confronted by absolute madness.

Blais is both charming and irritating as a man who prides himself on being ambitious, attractive and successful at a young age. It’s fascinating (and rather unsettling) to watch how thoroughly George and Martha shatter his confidence.

I was surprised by Armstrong’s portrayal of the mousy Honey. Even when her character does a lot of cringing, crying and puking, which could easily become tiresome, she never seems particularly victimized here. It’s actually quite exhilarating to watch her drink, laugh and sob herself sick. Here is a woman who has had scant opportunity to truly exist on her own terms and she’s taking full advantage of the whole new set of social rules that George and Martha have conjured up.

One thing to keep in mind: there is only one washroom on the premises. Since there are two intermissions and drinks available, you may be lining up for the bathroom. Just in case, there is bar just a few doors down that provides facilities to those in desperate need. (Just ask for directions.)

This is intense, intelligent and viscerally thrilling theatre. Don’t miss out!

Details:

Photo of Janet-Laine Green and Booth Savage (foreground), Claire Armstrong and Benjamin Blais (background) provided by the company.

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