Sensational Savagery @ Theatre Three

Savagely seductive over its three hour long two interval duration, Theatre Three’s production of Edward Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? finally opened Saturday July 10th to a smallish house of ardent T3 and Albee supporters. Regional respected director, SMU and Yale theatre professor and Fulbright scholar Blake Hackler brought forth a salaciously sapient and realistically grounded performance from his tight-knit cast of four actors, each ideally suited to play the designated role. As a director, Hackler imbues his cast with a heart-pounding synthesis of realities and fantasies, from absent-minded, minute gesture to over-riding character arc and literal or literate motivation. The soul and engaging spirit of any great play is conflict and resolution. Hackler maximizes this through-line without relying on stereotypical portraits or telegraphing pivotal moments. As often as Albee’s play has been staged and as often as many of us have seen it, the Theatre Three opening night performance gifted its audience with a fresh, vibrant view of this time-honored classic. Bravo! Hackler’s years as an eminent, practiced academician as well as a national theatre professional allow him a unique “insider” view of the the sort of humans who inhabit this “Ivory Tower” environment and their modes of dysfunctional interaction. I suspect this production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf will rank as a top contender for regional year’s best on stage.

What’s with the enigmatic title, anyway? How Albee describes it: “I was in there [a saloon in New York] having a beer one night, and I saw “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who’s afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.” All of us have a piece of that reality burned into our psyches: the fear of living life without false illusions….

It’s hard to forget the emblematic portrayals of the four characters in Mike Nichols’ 1966 black and white film version of the work, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis. Many stage productions rely on predictable mimicry. Hackler’s production avoids that easy path and brings dynamic focus to the interplay of all four characters, allowing each to reveal as many moments of manipulative strength as of self-pitying weakness. In addition, Hackler has his actors focus on the comedic moments sprinkled generously throughout the script. In particular,  Olivia Cinquepalmi as Honey employs comic timing to potent advantage. She has “the gift.” As dark as this play careens, it’s not all sturm und drang. The three acts divide masterfully into a trio of games, orchestrated with sociopathic precision by the brow-beaten George, in contrast to his wife Martha’s derisive depiction of him as a hopelessly incompetent buffoon. Introverted and blandly officious in a bumbling professorial way, as if he always feels stuck “lecturing” someone who isn’t smart enough to listen, Jeffrey Schmidt’s calculatedly milquetoast-seeming George fascinates with his peculiar obsession over the threat science offers to civilization. Is he, instead, sly, just trying to get a sincere rise out of the opportunistic young scientist helping himself to gallons of the house bourbon? Felipe Carrasco’s initially macho, entitled 1950’s style white dude Nick disintegrates into a whining “house boy” servant before our eyes, assaulted by both Martha and George, in each’s own uniquely twisted way. It feels satisfying and justified to watch him stew in his own juice. Christie Vela, in a beautiful turn, brings surprising glimpses of vulnerability to her realization of wanton, vulgar, loud Martha. Often played as an unforgivably rude harridan, Martha, in Vela’s nuanced interpretation, becomes far more interesting and the most “human” of these characters. I found myself empathizing with her. I have always found the play’s final scene a bit “tacked on”, unrelated to the arc of the full piece. In this production, the last scene closed flawlessly (no spoilers from me as to how or why) and lifted us as observer/participants in early sunrise catharsis. Well done. I’ll watch anything Blake Hackler directs, any day.

A few technical quibbles: 1) I sat on the south side of the house. It seemed the actors played more generously to other sides. I would have liked to see more faces than backs of heads (always hard to work in the round). 2) The flood lights mounted on stage dominated the space oddly and didn’t add much artistically when used, at least from the house south perspective. I wondered why they were even incorporated….

Small quibbles with a superb production.

Caution to audiences. Theatre Three now functions in a totally remodeled space. You enter its front at what would have been considered the back, and I saw no signage in welcome. Wandered around trying to figure it out with a few other lost patrons…and the “nearby” parking with on-going construction is dismal. Not Theatre Three’s fault. Thank you, City of Dallas and Quadrangle.

Surprised to learn there was neither masking nor proof of vaccination required of patrons. COVID is still on the upswing. Be safe. Be smart.

The production runs through July 17. It is apparently pay-what-you-can.


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