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Union Busting

Edward Albee intended the personal to be extremely political in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Shakespeare Santa Cruz obliges.

By Rob Pratt

Love isn't really blind. It distorts perception, certainly, and incites unreasonable expectations and disappointments. It magnifies self-doubt and diminishes an individual's capacity to make an objective evaluation of their place in the world. Just like American political discourse.

For playwright Edward Albee, both love and politics play on illusions. Illusions about the way individuals should relate to each other in a love relationship. Illusions about power and equality in a love relationship. Illusions about the ways partners in a love relationship should express their core ideals to the larger world.

In Albee's landmark play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, running through Aug. 29 as part of Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 2004 summer season, these themes of love and relationship are explored in excruciating detail. With a simple substitution of the phrase "political relationship" for the phrase "love relationship" in the above paragraph, the play becomes a commentary on American politics--a subtext that Albee has said he fully intended to explore by writing the play.

"The experience of going to the theater and suspending disbelief and believing in the events onstage uses the same muscles we use to believe in government," says Michael Edwards, who directs the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Albee's Woolf. "People choose to believe that George Bush is a good president, and I'm stunned that people who think so can convince themselves that the other side [of the American political debate] belongs to the devil. It's a very similar muscle to the one used to believe the illusion of theater."

Thanks to a classic 1966 film of the play, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis and George Segal--not to mention legions of literature professors who include the play on freshman reading lists--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the best-known works of contemporary American theater. But even while Woolf is continually produced for the stage, and though many people have read the play and seen the movie, Edwards says he finds that "a lot of people haven't seen it onstage."

People who read it or see the movie of the play, Edwards says, are "stunned at how funny it is onstage, and they leave thinking that it's a journey that's tremendously worth taking. Sometimes they're scared of jumping in and seeing it because it ain't Neil Simon."

Woolf follows two married couples home from a party thrown by the president of a university. The husbands are both professors. George, married to Martha, the daughter of the university president, is a tenured professor of history. Nick, married to Honey, is a newly hired professor of biology. In the span of a few hours, the couples live through a series of drunken revels, taunts, sadistic and sexual games and harrowing intimate revelations.

"For this play, I don't think my job is to come up with a concept," Edwards says of framing the 42-year-old play for contemporary audiences. "I have insisted that it has to be set in 1962 [the year the play debuted on Broadway] given that the circumstances are so specific--especially the role of women. The whole sexual politics of it is altered since then. In 1962, the pill had been invented, and in 1963 we would have Vatican II. We had a young president, Kennedy, and he had ideas about the future. The play captures vividly a time when history seemed to be moving too fast and all of our relationships were changing. Our ideas about sex and government were about to explode.

"Illusion is the great obsession of all of [Albee's] works," Edwards continues. "People commit utterly to these notions, and they never really accept that they are in fact not reality. [Albee asks,] 'Does it make it true because you believe it?'"

As with Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and John Fletcher's The Tamer Tamed, which play in repertory with Woolf, the play examines the marriage contract and the illusions that society and even the individual partners to a marriage impose on the relationship. Edwards explains that even marriage itself is an illusion.

"It's an invention of man, and it changes over time" he says. "Many people feel that they own the idea of marriage, and ownership of the idea of marriage has changed over the years."

However, change doesn't come without a fight. In the play, as perhaps in politics, emotional upheaval precedes a lasting peace.

"The struggle is very fierce right as the illusion is giving way," Edwards says.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through Aug. 29 at the Mainstage, Theater Arts Center, UCSC. Tickets are $10-$40; call 831.459.2159 or go to www.shakespearesantacruz.com.

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From the August 4-11, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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