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Review: 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' at the Rubicon

February 3, 2009 |  2:30 pm

Virginia_woolfThe growling “Hey!” that Martha uses to summon her husband, George, in the Rubicon Theatre Company’s production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a guttural noise choked with savagery and a thick smoker’s phlegm. An emasculating sound if ever one existed, her bark is the recurring audio motif of this rousing revival, which brings an invigorating if sometimes strained animalism to Edward Albee’s classic vivisection of WASP marriage.

Joe Spano and Karyl Lynn Burns play the unhappily married academic couple who spend one very long night (and part of the next morning) clawing at each for the benefit of their stunned houseguests, the younger married couple Nick (Jason Chanos) and Honey (Angela Goethals).

For nearly three hours, the play’s quartet of marital misery swerves drunkenly through an obstacle course of accusation, recrimination and infidelity -- ending up on the other side of twilight emotionally bruised and concussed, not to mention seriously hung over.

Albee’s play, which won a Tony Award in 1963, demands performers with a complete absence of vanity, and both lead actors are more than game. As Martha, daughter of the town’s university president, Burns is a frumpy witch whose power to insult is both unattractive and magnificent to behold.

Physically, her Martha is more Elizabeth Taylor than Kathleen Turner -- a stout, curly-haired brunet with a middle-age spread -- but deep down, she’s a vicious animal with a raucous howl. The actress ratchets up the delivery to foghorn levels, and you can’t help fearing for her vocal cords.

Still, it’s Spano, as deceptively meek history professor George, who gives this “Woolf” a sharp set of dramatic fangs. His stealth approach to marital warfare is all bite and very little bark. The actor underplays almost every move and even flirts (deliberately or not) with inaudibility.

Spano is perhaps too old to play George -- the character is supposed to be six years Martha’s junior -- but the actor uses his age to remarkable advantage, showing the damage that years of bitter feuding can inflict on the body.

Director Jenny Sullivan brings remarkable lucidity to the play’s alcoholic haze, but she often allows the bestial impulses in a scene to peak too early, leaving the actors with nowhere to go except over the top. Even by Martha’s hammy tendencies, this “Woolf” could stand to take it down a notch or two.

In a clever wink to the never-seen character of Martha’s father, set designer Tom Giamario has installed a stately portrait of the old man at stage center. Martha (who rivals only Hedda Gabler in her all-consuming worship of her father) doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the painting, but its presence seeps through the play like the contents of a cyanide capsule.

The production sneakily implies that the instigating spark of the marital conflagration didn’t come from George or Martha, but from daddy dearest himself.

-- David Ng

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura. 7 p.m., Wednesdays; 8 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m., Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Feb. 22. $29-$52. (805) 667-2900. Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes.

Caption: From left, Jason Chanos, Angela Goethals, Karyl Lynn Burns and Joe Spano in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Credit: Rod Lathim

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