Artists at Work - and Play

Virginia Woolf’s one and only play, Freshwater, was written for and performed by her artist friends and family members in her sister Vanessa Bell’s London studio. The Women’s Project and SITI Company have joined forces to present its New York premiere, directed by Anne Bogart. The little-known script presents some real challenges, and the production does not quite rise to meet them. According to the program notes, the presenters’ goal is to bring the audience “delight during these uneasy times,” a perspective justified, in part, by Woolf’s own recollection of the original performance as an “unbuttoned, laughing evening.” Bogart’s direction emphasizes the play’s lightheartedness and wackiness at every opportunity. In her view, and apparently also the producers’, there is no hint of any darkness or purpose to its composition. However, while Freshwater is undeniably both less developed and lighter in tone than many of Woolf’s other works, this interpretation is overly simplified, and the production is the weaker for it.

For one thing, the text does have a clear point: it is about the ascension of the Modernist Bloomsbury Group over its, as of 1935, still considerably more established Romantic-era forebears. “Where shall we live?” the young ingenue Ellen Terry asks her strapping sailor lover. “In Bloomsbury,” he replies, where they will feast on bread and butter, sausages and kippers, and presumably have much better sex lives than Terry has had with her elderly husband. It also probes the conflict between artists’ need for creative introspection and their need for the companionship of other human beings, in order to both generate art and to experience personal happiness. Freshwater’s exploration of these two ideas can be related to those of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Young Jean Lee’s The Appeal, neither of which could be accurately described as frivolous plays.

In spite of all their efforts, not one of the artist characters in this play succeeds in creating anything from the beginning to the end of the play. Tennyson does nothing but read and reread poems he has already written; his one attempt at new composition is foiled. Watts is confounded by his picture’s central symbol, and Cameron’s photographs are ruined by Terry’s departure, a strong-willed donkey and other factors. In spite of the fact that these artists are supposed to be each other’s closest friends, they are incapable of listening to each other, much less assisting in solving each other’s various crises. The text is full of images of stasis and entrapment. The portrait of Terry is to be of her about to be crushed by a giant foot. The Camerons want to leave for India, but cannot until their coffins arrive – while this was a true incident in the real Camerons’ lives, its inclusion and ongoing repetition is eerie.

The acting style and staging are highly active and physicalized, as is typically the case in a Bogart/SITI production. There are moments when this direction works with the play, in the first act, particularly, when the whirling movements grind to a halt, and the characters stare at each other, grasping for an idea of what to do next, how to move forward with their lives. However, the energy of Freshwater lies primarily in its language, which is lush with imagery and wordplay that are consistently underexplored. If Bogart and her cast had paid as much attention to developing the spoken text as they did to the developing the piece’s physical vocabulary, it would be a much stronger production.

As it is, the actors are absorbed in their mission of presenting the play as if it is the lightest of all possible fictions. Frequently, their efforts are irritating. There are no developed stakes in this world to animate them. The role of teenage Ellen Terry is curiously miscast with a clearly much older actress. While Kelly Maurer does an admirable job of acting suitably girlish, she is a distracting choice. In case any viewers have missed the point that Freshwater is fun, they are hit over the head with anachronistic and wholly inappropriate punk rock music at the play’s conclusion.

On the other hand, the production’s visual design elements do an effective job of transposing a play conceived for an amateur home performance to an Off-Broadway environment. The quilted pastel curtain is a charming touch, and the costumes and wigs convey both the Victorian setting and the play’s inherent oddity. The stage is always well-lit and the lighting assists in creating an outdoor setting for the brief seaside scene.

Fans of Freshwater or Woolf’s other work may want to attend for the purpose of seeing a live performance of this rarely produced play. Fans of experimental theater or language-oriented plays are best off looking elsewhere.

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