That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

Make me a drink.

Posted by kozemp on May 1, 2015

I am kind of furiously banging away at this one on a self-imposed late night deadline, because I really need to get some sleep but I also need to get this down while it’s still fresh in my mind, before said sleep smears the edges of my recollection. Which means this may not be the most polished thing I’ve ever written, but by the end you’ll understand why that’s necessary.

So, then.

Just after I started my slow, cautious foray back into doing theater stuff however many weeks or months ago it was – it is one of those things that already I cannot remember precisely when it happened – I was looking at the Theater Philadelphia website and saw that Theatre Exile was doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

I saw that and had a curious, strangled reaction, for a bunch of reasons.

I instantly bought a ticket all the same, and here’s why:

A little while later I was having lunch with an old theater friend and I mentioned the play, saying, “have you ever actually SEEN it?”

He scrunched up his face for a second and then said, “you know, I don’t think I have.”

“Me neither,” I said. “I mean, I’ve seen the movie, and read the script a bunch of times.”

“I’ve done scene work from it,” he said.

“Right. But have you ever actually seen it performed?”

I paused.

I will admit that back when I was actively doing theater stuff I would occasionally bang on Theatre Exile for tackling really interesting and really challenging material and then having a bad tendency to back away from the parts that made it really interesting and challenging – for metaphorically, and occasionally literally, turning down the lights at the important bits. However, I will also admit that when I would call Joe Canuso “my nemesis” and shake my fist at the mention of them – I literally used to do that, for Chrissakes, I’m cringing at the thought of it – the joke came out of a combination of burning jealousy and sincere admiration. Joe and Theatre Exile seemed to have tastes that ran very similar to mine, except they also had a relative abundance of things I lacked. Important things like experience, and money, and decorum, and good sense. They were doing the sorts of shows I wanted to do, only better.

You can see how that would drive me crazy.

At any rate, once I made the decision to slowly and cautiously start working my way back, and to start out by just seeing as many shows and as many people as I could, and once I saw that Theatre Exile was doing Virginia Woolf, my reaction to the whole thing was summed up in what I said next to my friend at lunch:

“I’m not about to miss THAT.”

This is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Straight off and for the record: I saw Theatre Exile’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Plays and Players tonight, and it. Is. ASTONISHING.

It’s not just that everyone in it is great. (They are.) It’s not just that the execution of the tech across the board is great. (It is.) And it’s certainly not that Joe Canuso’s direction perfectly – oh god so perfectly – avoids all the things I’ve been running into as I get back into this thing, all the artificial, presentationalĀ things about theater that I absolutely fucking loathe. The actors talk TO each other. They look at each other. They get in each other’s faces. They touch. They flirt. The characters and the performances are so real and the direction is so dead-on and so right that… I… I almost can’t describe it. It’s like you’re not there. The proscenium and the seats and the lights and the other people in the audience melt away and you’re just in this room with these four people and you wish you weren’t, because the performances of these wretched, horrible people are so transcendent, but at the same time you can’t look away for even an instant. When Honey stumbles around in a drunken stupor I literally had a second where I was freaking out that she was going to fall off the stage.

The sheer reality of the whole endeavor is terrifying.

The agility of the show, of the totality of acting and directing and design, just amazes me. Most plays – good ones, even great ones – are like an aircraft carrier. They’re powerful, but they’re tough, and lumbering. And that’s not surprising, or even bad. It takes a lot of work and more concentration than most folks can comprehend from a whole lot of people to put on a really good production. A lack of maneuverability, after a fashion, is okay. This? This is not that. Christ is it not that. This is like someone turned a Formula 1 car into an Edward Albee play. The show, the whole thing, it turns on a dime, and it changes gears faster than you can blink, and it goes from zero to a hundred and back again in seconds without breaking a sweat.

Believe me, were it not way past my bedtime on a school night I would rave on and on about every amazing thing in this production, even though I have neither metaphors nor superlatives enough to accurately describe it. The closest thing I’ve got is what I was able to say to Joe Canuso before I had to rush out and catch my train home so I could type this up and get to bed at a decent hour (which I have failed to do).

I found Joe, shook his hand, and just said, “it burns the paint off the walls.”

As a friend of mine put it: this is what theater is supposed to be.

It is extraordinary.

You must, must, must go see it.



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