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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?--The Dance


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Xsight! Performance Group

at the Josephine Louis Theatre of Northwestern University

February 28

When Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was first presented, in 1962, it was exciting theater. But time has not treated it well. Topics that were shocking in 1962--adultery, alcoholism, abortion, and marital game playing--may be greeted with a bit of a yawn these days. George and Martha's wild manipulations of each other today seem an entirely theatrical construction, with no relationship to any conceivable heterosexual couple. Nevertheless, the play retains an increasingly campy appeal.

In many ways, it's the victim of a conflict of styles. Albee had previously written absurdist one-act plays. Virginia Woolf seems to me the same kind of absurdist drama but wearing naturalistic clothes. Most productions, including the Hollywood movie starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, accepted the naturalistic appearance and played the absurdism as high melodrama.

Xsight! Performance Group, in this adaptation of the Albee play, frees it from its naturalistic straitjacket by peppering it with dance interludes. Xsight!, which has a reputation for sometimes preferring to shock rather than dance, may have been drawn initially to the play's potential for camp. Although it doesn't stint on outrageous stunts, happily Xsight! chooses to engage the text as well. The result is a dancers' commentary on the play that demonstrates how dance, video, and music can illuminate its underlying themes.

Xsight! has presented narrative works before, in The Pope's Toe and What Are We Going to Do With Mary? It typically fractures narrative, giving the gist of a plot but presenting scenes out of chronological order or from multiple viewpoints. The most significant moments tend to happen in dance; the words just communicate the action. For Virginia Woolf, Xsight! chooses a somewhat more linear method. It enacts the play, with the dancers taking the roles and speaking the characters' lines; Xsight! still fractures the play's narrative, however, and puts the important moments in dance. A person unfamiliar with the play would be lost.

The first scenes are played in front of the curtain before it rises: the play's high points are translated into slapstick movement. In the first scene, Honey (Holly Terrell-Quinn) vomits, as the amplified sound of retching comes over the loudspeakers. In the last vignette, Nick (Brian Jeffery) holds Honey's legs open as she goes into labor; when George says "stop" in the middle of a speech, they suddenly stop, look at Honey, then spill her roughly onto the floor. After this opening section, the broad physical humor becomes smaller and more controlled.

One of the pleasures of Albee's play is the push and pull of the conversations between George and Martha, with the struggle for power just below the surface. The other, wilder power plays are in many ways an absurdist heightening of the control issues in some marriages. Xsight! captures these conversational rhythms in clever movement. As Martha (Mary Ward) tries to remember the name of a Bette Davis movie, George (Timothy O'Slynne) lies curled at her feet, hugging her ankles. When she asks George a question, she falls backward; the momentum brings George to his knees while it cushions her fall. George grunts an answer and falls to the floor again, bringing Martha to her feet. The movement is a lovely visual metaphor for the imbalance of power in their relationship.

In addition to dance, Xsight! uses video projections by Stephan Mazurek projected onto the back scrim. The projections sometimes express a plot point better than either dance or theater could. When Martha first begins to flirt with Nick, she changes into a blouse that emphasizes her cleavage. While Martha does a vamping dance onstage in front of Nick, the video shows Martha doing a dance only with her cleavage; through tiny movements of her rib cage, Ward is able to make her cleavage expand, contract, stretch, settle, and bounce. The video never leaves her cleavage, in the same way that Nick's eyes never leave it.

Xsight! is willing to stop the forward momentum of the plot for interludes that explore character. When a tipsy Honey declares that she wants to do an interpretive dance, Xsight! switches to a dream sequence that shows Honey's rather chaotic inner life. Honey's dreams are filled with chubby babies--on the video they're cloth dolls with wide, idiotic grins. When George quizzes her about why she never gets pregnant, the video's images of babies in bottles answer that Honey gets periodic abortions. An inebriated Honey collapses to the floor and rolls around, her dress riding up to her waist. She ends up on George and Martha's living room floor, panting in simulated childbirth. We sense that a woman so conflicted about children might easily find escape in alcohol. Quinn does an excellent job of portraying this contradictory character.

Xsight! characteristically works quickly; Virginia Woolf was created in two and a half weeks. Some of the rough edges show--particularly in the difficulty of hearing the dancers' voices. But the quickness with which they work helps to prevent the scruples of good taste, which might otherwise take the edge off their sarcasm. Most important, their stream of invention never flags. Intelligence and invention have always been key components of effective satire, always one of Xsight!'s strengths. But Virginia Woolf also shows a compassionate comprehension of character.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?--The Dance goes further into the theatrical side of dance than anything I've seen before; and I think it succeeds in theatrical terms. The variety of resources that Xsight! draws on--dance, theater, video, sound constructions by David Zerlin, original music by Chad Willetts--and the nonlinear narrative devices Xsight! uses offer new insights into this hoary "modern classic."

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