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Dorothy Chansky

Woolf at the Door

SITI Company at Women’s Project
424 West 55th Street, New York, NY
January 25-February 15, 2009;

Tuesdays & Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 3:00 and 7:00 p.m.
Tickets: $42; box office: 212.765-2105 or www.WomensProject.org

L-R: Gian Murray Gianino, Kelly Maurer, Barney O'Hanlon, Tom Nelis, and Ellen Lauren. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Art for art’s sake gets an arch and artsy send-up in “Freshwater,” Virginia Woolf’s sole foray into writing a play for play’s sake. Is there an article missing in the previous sentence? No. Woolf’s spoof of Victorians Julia Cameron, Alfred Tennyson, et al. was purpose-guilt for her own arts coterie, the Bloomsbury Group, who performed the piece as a home theatrical in 1935.

The Women’s Project and SITI Company production (the play’s New York professional premiere) adds another layer to the arts colony-performing-an-arts-colony conceit. Under Anne Bogart’s direction, longstanding members of her SITI troupe romp their way through the modernist satire using their own, postmodernist wink at the silliness of failing to seize the day while in a frenzy to freeze the moment. SITI actors channel versions of various Bells, Woolfs, and friends, as the latter caricature their (to them) twee forebears. That Woolf and company may in turn seem precious and dated three-quarters of a century later is not lost here.

Stephen Duff Webber and Ellen Lauren. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

So, here’s what transpires. In an apple green room with several windows at varying heights, three artistes and an intellectual soldier on, manically riding

their various hobbyhorses into the sunset, so to speak. Painter George Frederick Watts (Barney O’Hanlon) tries to capture Modesty on canvas; Tennyson (Stephen Duff Webber) reads and rereads (aloud, of course) from his poem “Maud”; photographer Julia Cameron (the incomparable Ellen Lauren) poses pictures for posterity All subscribe one way or another to the mantra “the utmost for the highest.” Meanwhile, Cameron and her philosopher husband await the arrival of custom-made coffins—the last of the necessities they have assembled to tote on their impending trip to India.

Gian Murray Gianino and Kelly Maurer.Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The fly in this aesthetes’ ointment is the painter’s model, the teenage Ellen Terry. The real Terry had long since passed her heyday as grand dame of the British stage in 1923, when Woolf wrote the first draft of “Freshwater.” (The current production features a conflated text, culled from the 1923 and the 1935 versions by Women’s Project Artistic Director Julie Crosby.) Here, Terry is the voice of life and sanity, as she decides to leave her aged husband, Watts, and run away with a flirtatious navy Lieutenant (Gian Murray Gianino), who is the antithesis of anyone who would make a girl hold an awkward pose for four hours at a time. (The sailor is the only wholly fictional character in the group.) The young couple dip their toes in the ocean and Ellen declares independence by feeding her wedding ring to a porpoise. Set designer James Schuette conjures a beach via grassy fronds painted on the main room’s walls and a nifty trap in the floor where the romantic duo dangle their feet. Brian H. Scott’s lighting completes the sense of rippling, sparkling water and bright sunshine.

If there’s a message here—and I think there is—it has to do with the impossibility of pinning down life in a painting, a photograph, or a book. The performance is the thing, hence the young actress as self-savior and free spirit. The fact that pictures and books last while performances evaporate is just one of those ironies that keep definitions of “the utmost and the highest” in play. Or in plays.

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