nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
January 24, 2009
I am a big fan of the SITI Company. I am trained in Suzuki and Viewpoints and have been very inspired by Anne Bogart's books. Perhaps this has left me biased, but I do believe that anyone, regardless of any knowledge of the SITI Company, will find their latest production of Virginia Woolf's Freshwater charming and delightful.
Freshwater, the only play Woolf ever wrote, is essentially a Victorian You Can't Take It With You. Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, philosopher Charles Hay Cameron, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, painter George Frederick Watts, future actress Ellen Terry, and the ever-patient maid, Mary Magdalen, bumble around the Cameron home, as they seemingly do every day, being quirky and artistic and not the least bit rational. In the words of Ellen:
O how usual it all is. Nothing ever changes in this house. Somebody is always asleep. Lord Tennyson is always reading Maud. The cook is always being photographed. The Camerons are always starting for India. I'm always sitting to Signor. I'm Modesty today—Modesty crouching at the feet of Mammon.
After a while, Ellen can simply no longer take posing as Modesty for her much older husband (Watts) and decides to run off with a young Lieutenant she conveniently met that day, launching some mild, good-natured mayhem.
Originally written to be performed by Woolf's family for their friends, the play is directed by Bogart in a highly presentational manner. There is no getting around the fact that this is Theatrical. And, you know, there is something rather refreshing about that. Most plays aim to cover this up, to make you believe that the artificially created world on stage is completely real. There is something rather honest, and perhaps old-fashioned, about Freshwater. On some level, acting is just playing dress-up, and this production, while excellently crafted, embraces that.
Though the plot is simple, Bogart and her collaborators see to it that every moment is completely filled and thoroughly engaging. There are almost always several points of focus on the stage as the characters mill about; it is never a distraction, but creates a fun sort of circus environment. A few fast-paced dance/movement sequences, including one as the Camerons prepare for India, are stunning to watch. This is the SITI Company's forte as images stream by and you are caught in a wave of energy and excitement. The precision with which they are executed and the strength of the ensemble are truly inspiring.
The rush of energy of these moments highly contrasts with the moments of extreme stillness the company also excel at. In one of the funniest moments of the play, everyone is just sitting. Then Akiko Aizawa, as the maid Mary, enters stage left, crosses the width of the stage, and exits the other side. Stillness. Mary enters again and repeats this cross twice more. She does not hurry, she does not do much of anything. She just walks. Everyone else sits still. It is hilarious. At several points in the performance, I got the sense it was almost a study in comedy. What is funny? How many times do you repeat something for it to become funny? Usually, it is three, but not always. As with any study, not every attempt was successful, but it certainly was interesting.
Perhaps a good quarter of the humor is derived from Darron L. West's brilliant sound design. Sound creates mood, and sometimes he plays into the mood of the action, and other times against. Training is a big part of the SITI Company's mission and it shows. Aizawa, Gian Murray Gianino, Ellen Lauren, Kelly Maurer, Tom Nelis, Barney O'Hanlon, and Stephen Duff Webber are good actors who work hard, have incredible physical and vocal control, and an endearing sense of play and discovery. Aizawa teases and plays with the audience with her eyes, Lauren knows how to drop her voice an octave for a laugh, Maurer is endearingly sincere as the dissatisfied Ellen Terry, and Gianino is adorably pompous as the Lieutenant.
The ensemble, director, and designers work in perfect harmony with one another (though I feel that for the SITI Company "harmony" means continually shifting between melody and discord, slow and fast). They have taken a play that in all honesty could quite easily become rather stuffy, and breathed new, energetic, charming life into it. Bogart writes in the program that Freshwater "was performed as a much-needed, 'unbuttoned, laughing evening' for [Woolf's] friends and family. We have lovingly combined the two scripts [Woolf's drafts from 1923 and 1935] in the hope of bring you similar delight during these uneasy times." They have certainly reached that goal.