Big bad “Woolf” bares its teeth at Shotgun Players

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Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is set in a fictional university town called New Carthage, a reference to the ancient city destroyed by Roman forces after a century-long series of wars. Albee’s 1962 play certainly feels like it documents a century’s worth of warfare — only, it’s the psychological kind that unfolds between two couples sharing an ill-fated after-dinner drink. Now at Shotgun Players in an initial run through Nov. 20, director Mark Jackson’s “Woolf” is deliciously big and bad indeed.  

“Woolf” is a play dealing in universal themes under tight constraints. The action takes place among four characters in a single setting during a stretch between 2 a.m. and dawn. Or, as one disgruntled 1962 reviewer put it, the play is “three and a half hours long, four characters wide and a cesspool deep.”

The first of those four characters are George (David Sinaiko), a history professor at the town university, and his wife, Martha (Beth Wilmurt), the daughter of the university’s president. At their home, the older couple host Nick (Josh Schell), a young, newly hired biology professor, and his wife, Honey (Megan Trout), for drinks after a faculty dinner. Far from a quaint dinner party though, the night instead is full of psychological warfare that explodes as George and Martha engage each other and their guests in a series of mindgames with sinister, alliterative titles, including “Hump the Hostess,” “Get the Guests,” “Bringing up Baby,” and, lastly, “Kill the Kid.”

Early in the play, Martha tells Nick about a mock boxing match between her and George that took place years prior. The entirety of the play carries on in the boxing tradition, with characters emotionally circling each other in myriad configurations of betrayal, harm and seduction. Nina Ball’s bare set is the ring in which these characters fight, circle and slump. Without so much as a bench or stool, the actors are forced to sit on the floor, lean against the sides of the stage or crowd the stairs.

A backlit bar flanks the set, where an assortment of colored bottles (and their multi-hued contents) glow from within. The sheer amount of crouching and drinking that goes on does much to heighten the play’s intense emotional discomfort, and dawn’s arrival, which signals the play’s end, seems to be as much a relief for the characters as for the audience.

Owing to both Albee’s dense, witty and deeply cutting script along with Sinaiko and Wilmurt’s performances, neither George nor Martha ever comes across as truly deranged — just keenly intelligent, cruel and miserable in their marriage. Sinaiko plays George with a calculated, understated menace that works nicely, but Wilmurt’s Martha starts off too stiffly to be entirely believable as the brash, “braying” Martha. As Nick and Honey, Schell and Trout perform well as counterparts to the older couple. Schell captures Nick’s much-remarked-upon virility with ease, and Trout’s surrealist, self-conscious naivité is a counterbalance to the dourness of the other characters.

Albee not only pits the couples against each other as individuals but also as proxies for various cultural anxieties: young versus old, biology versus history, communism versus democracy. For a contemporary audience, the constant references to Martha and Honey’s reproductive failures are a pointed reminder of the ways in which women’s social worth has been historically linked to motherhood and childbearing.

Above all, Albee’s portrait of George and Martha and their prey is compelling precisely because it is so disturbing. More than 50 years after the play was first performed, Shotgun’s “Woolf” retains this acerbic vitality and serves a timely (if not unintended) tribute to the late Albee, who died this September. His characters, in all their cruelty, tell us much about humanity’s darkest — and perhaps deepest — desires.   

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is now playing at Shotgun Players in an initial run through Nov. 20, with repertory performances through January 2017.

Contact Sarah Elizabeth Adler at sadler@dailycal.org.

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