From left: Janet-Laine Green, Claire Armstrong, Benjamin Blais and Booth Savage.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? by Edward Albee (Red One Theatre Collective). At the Storefront Theatre (955 Bloor). Through December 21, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 1 pm. $15-$25. secureaseat.com. Rating: NNNNN
Here it is December and Red One Theatre Collective’s treating us to a first-rate version of Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
You may not think of this as Christmas theatre, but remember that family get-togethers for the holidays often involve tension along with celebration.
Explosions erupt and domestic secrets are exposed when the incessantly bickering George and Martha (Booth Savage and Janet-Laine Green) invite a younger couple, Nick and Honey (Benjamin Blais and Claire Armstrong) to their house after a faculty party. New to the academic community, Nick teaches biology; George is an unexceptional assistant prof in the history department, while Martha is the college president’s daughter.
What follows is three hours of unusual party games fuelled by more and more liquor as the elder couple attack each other and their guests. Loyalties shift quickly, and battle partners can change several times in a single scene as characters indulge in lies, obfuscations, tricks and insults. Along the way they broach a number of taboo topics, including that of George and Martha’s son.
Director Tyrone Savage handles the shifting alliances and rhythms of the play expertly, ramping up the intensity from the start but knowing when to quiet it down. Most importantly, he carefully offers moments of insight that provide sympathy for characters who have previously behaved horrendously.
He’s also careful to take viewers just to the edge of making us totally dislike these people. Even so, we wonder why George and Martha, who surely have no more skin to flay off each other, stay together, and why Nick and Honey remain in their home as things go steadily downhill. Yet we watch the action, unable to look away, as if it were a slow-moving car crash.
At the same time, the script and the production are brutally funny: George and Martha's antics will make you laugh as well as cringe.
A long-time couple offstage as well as in the play, Green and Savage bring a sensual chemistry to their work. Loud, crude and demanding, Green’s Martha, who can bray with chilling effect, thinks nothing of tossing a half-eaten banana on the coffee table just before their guests arrive or of getting overtly sexual with Nick. Always on the offensive with her mate, Martha at first seems iron-plated when George tries to attack her. Only late in the play do we see the scared child hiding inside; the relationship with her powerful father has a lot to do with shaping this foul-mouthed, frustrated figure.
Savage’s George is stronger than others I’ve seen; he doesn’t rely on the passive-aggressive note but has his own power from the start, even when he agrees with his wife simply to curb any further fighting. He’s an intellectual from the start, using wordplay and clever allusions to stake out his turf.
The other actors are a fitting match for this iconic couple. At some level Nick and Honey understand the stress in their hosts’ lives; they’ve just not been married long enough to have played it out fully on their own.
Blais’s Nick, who bristles whenever he or his wife is attacked, knows he has to play the academic politics game but knows that he’s as good a scrapper as anybody in the room. Though Honey is the play’s most difficult role, Armstrong fleshes her out beyond the nervous, giggly wife we initially see. Even though she fades in and out as she becomes further inebriated, this Honey, in her own way, is as clever and manipulative as the others in getting what she wants. Armstrong even reveals a touch of bloodlust in this shy, mousy woman.
The script is full of memorable writing, but several scenes stand out here. The episode in which George toys with Nick while seemingly revealing some of his own past is nicely layered, as are Martha’s desperation and revelations in the third act. The play’s quiet coda is another treat.
You’ll probably be emotionally drained by the end of the evening, but you’ll also know you’ve been part of a special and absolutely worthwhile theatrical experience.