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Theater Review (NYC): Freshwater

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The friend with whom I attended Freshwater pointed out that it really represents three periods of time: the Victorian Age, about which it is written; the 1920's-30's, in which it was written; and the time in which it is presented. This is a difficult feat to attempt, much less achieve, and the Women’s Project does not achieve the heights required.

Freshwater's script is a lyrical piece of prose that includes internal rhyme and meter. When read, it flows beautifully. Freshwater is filled with historical references that will send you to Wikipedia, and adorned with flights of fancy that might have influenced the likes of Ionesco had he known about them. In short, this is a piece of literature that needs no fiddling with. It is like a clear broth that is delicate and substantial at the same time. Only experienced chefs can make such a dish, and only the wise will serve it unadorned.

Ms. Bogart has chosen to adorn Virginia Woolf’s text with kitsch that is not only uninspired but bewildering. From the first moment of the play, when one actor comes out from behind the homespun curtain and appears to count the audience members (she does this three times) while the rest of the cast is clearly behind the curtain pretending to warm up and stealing the occasional campy peek through the curtain at us, this production hurtles like a woman in a hoop skirt running the steeplechase. It is clumsy and illogical.

The dramatis personae include Ellen Terry and George Frederick Watts at the end of their ten-month marriage, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Julia and Charles Cameron, and Mary Magdalen – clearly a riot of characters. The addition of Lt. John Craig was probably a reference to the illegitimate children Terry had with William Godwin while she was still married to Watts. She gave them the last name of Craig to avoid a scandal. This is the sort of unstated, but obvious in its time, reference that fills this text.

Over this is set the gentlest of plots, involving the departure of the Camerons for India accompanied by a cow and two coffins. Alfred Lord Tennyson wanders in and out, reading from his own work, and there is a lovely fictional scene between Terry and the lieutenant. Finally there is a cameo appearance by the Queen herself. It is all a tumult, and the text guides us with feather-like adjustments from here to there.

In this production, however, there is no moment to savor Ms. Woolf's writing. There is only an endless parade of slapstick blocking and uninspired acting that takes a 27-page script and turns it into 80 very slow minutes. The actors never seem comfortable or connected to one another. Although the faithful audience cheers them on, they seem lost and lethargic in some cases, brittle and aggressive in others. No one is in step with another, and all seem to be marking time until the Queen arrives to bid us adieu.

The Women’s Project production company has made a name for itself through dedication to women in the theater and the excellent quality of its productions. Freshwater somehow veered off the planned trajectory. It is a production that began with all the right reasons and ended up with all the wrong results. That's part of the journey of theater. It’s a lot like life.

Freshwater by Virginia Woolf; directed by Anne Bogart.

With: Akiko Aizawa (Mary Magdalen), Gian Murray Gianino (Lt. John Craig), Ellen Lauren (Julia Margaret Cameron), Kelly Maurer (Ellen Terry), Tom Nelis (Charles Hay Cameron), Barney O’Hanlon (George Frederick Watts) and Stephen Duff Webber (Alfred Lord Tennyson).

Sets and costumes by James Schuette; lighting by Brian H. Scott; sound by Darron L. West; hair and wig design by Anne Ford-Coates; production manager, Aduro Productions, Jason Janicki; dramaturgy by Megan E. Carter; production stage manager, Elizabeth Moreau; stage manager, Jack Gianino; assistant director, James Dacre. Presented by the Women’s Project, Julie Crosby, producing artistic director; and the SITI Company, Ms. Bogart and Megan Wanlass Szalla, directors. At the Julia Miles Theater, 424 West 55th Street, Clinton, (212) 239-6200. Through Feb. 15. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

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