Smile Politely

So, who is afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Saturday evening at 8 p.m. in the Channing-Murray Center (1209 W. Oregon, Urbana), the New Revels Players will be performing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I saw a poster in the basement of the Independent Media Center and couldn’t find anything about it online, but any theater performance for $5 immediately piques my interest. So, I tracked down Erik Allgood, New Revels veteran and director of the show, to give you good people an idea of what you might be in for Saturday evening.

Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little bit about New Revels Players and how you got interested in performing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Erik Allgood: New Revels Players is a campus RSO, and we’ve been around for five or six years in our current form. We usually do two or three shows a semester, but until last year we had never done a summer show. We were very strictly a school-year-only theater company until last summer, when we did a summer show and it went over very well, so we decided in the future we would do one summer show for one night only and try to get a crowd out for that. So, I’ve directed three other shows before, and I just graduated, so I was looking for something to do to go out of town with. I had just found this play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the previous semester when I read it in a class, and I fell in love with it. It’s a really intense, interesting, dynamic, multi-faceted play, and I thought, ‘Hey, we could really produce this, and it could be really great.’ So, I proposed it, and it got passed, and here we are doing a summer show.

Smile Politely: I’d guess that it’s more challenging to cast a play in the summer when many of your members are out of town?

Erik Allgood: We always have a handful who stick around for the summer. That’s where our desire to have a summer show came out of, just because there are a good chunk of people who stay here. The good thing about Virginia Woolf is that this is a fairly small cast – four people. And actually, I had enough of a tryout that I decided to have a chorus, too, to sort of silently act out some of the more dramatic monologues from the play. One thing I feel like the film version did very well was that it had these poetic silent bits to break up the narrative a little bit. Because the show’s really intense, and there’s a lot of arguing and a lot of really fast dialogue, and it can get overwhelming to listen to that for two hours. So, the chorus will act out a couple of skits to help break up the narrative, I hope in an interesting way.

Smile Politely: So it sounds like you’ve modified the original version a little bit to make it more similar to the film version?

Erik Allgood: Actually, we wanted to stay away from the film version with a lot of respect, because I feel like if we did it like the film version, it would really alienate the people who came to see it, because it was done in ’62, a completely different mentality. We tried to take the meat from this play – all the central ideas, I feel like, are universal and timeless – and get rid of the staunch, ’60s attitudes that were very much a part of the play. It’s a very progressive play, and when it first came out it was a huge push forward in terms of what was allowed, what was socially acceptable. People wanted to censor it, wanted to really neutralize it because it was just so intense. There’s a lot of language, there’s adultery, there’s very sexually-charged dialogue, some really intense dramatic elements. It was ahead of its time and it still feels really relevant today, but going back to the original question, we didn’t want to do it like the movie. I felt like the movie copped out in a lot of ways, actually. Also, it sort of dumbed it down. There’s a really dramatic twist, and I felt like they tried too hard to make it so it’s not as big of a reveal. It was too afraid that you weren’t going to get it. As far as changing the play, we didn’t change a word. There was one scene that the version of it that we took left out, that I feel like it would be a crime to leave out, so we got another version of the play and put it back in. The thing about the idea for the chorus is that they’re silent, so that they can exist in the play without changing any of the dialogue, and I wouldn’t ever change any of the dialogue; that would be very presumptuous, that would not be right for me to do that.

Smile Politely: I’ll confess to being ignorant about the content of the plot before reading a little about it online. It’s not a title that’s very descriptive; for someone’s who’s not familiar with the play, what are some of the things that make it appealing to you?

Erik Allgood: I’ll talk about the plot for a second, and then I’ll talk about what it means to me. Ultimately, it’s a love story, but it takes a long time to get there. It’s set around two very unhappy people, in a lot of ways. They’re a couple — it’s a very troubled marriage in a lot of ways — George and Martha. George is a quiet, intellectual type, but a boiling pot of anger and despair who has been disappointed by life. He’s a tenured professor at a university. His wife, Martha, is the president [of the college’s] daughter, who is equally disappointed by life, and she’s very loud, very vulgar, and she dominates over George in a lot of ways. There’s just a lot of mutual resentment between them, and they basically spend all their energy just going at each other, just to tear each other apart; they almost make a game of it. The play concerns one evening where they’ve just gotten home from a party, and they have guests over for this afterparty. Martha, the president’s daughter, is expected to entertain guests of the college, so there’s this young couple that serve as the foil to George and Martha. They definitely have their own personalities, but it’s George and Martha’s show. So, there’s this young couple, they’re in their mid-twenties — he’s a biologist, and she’s a housewife — and they’re from the Midwest, and they’re supposed to represent success. But as the play goes on, and as they become more involved in George and Martha’s world and the layers of social pretense start to peel off, you gain a lot of sympathy for George and Martha and you gain a lot of sympathy for Nick and Honey, the other couple. It’s really interesting, but it doesn’t limit its focus to the relationships, they go everywhere: what success means, there’s a lot of World War II absurdism there. There’s a lot of dialogue along the lines of, ‘I was head of the history department for four years, but that was during the war, and everybody came back. Not one single son of a bitch got killed.’ There are a lot of reasons that I wanted to do this play now, but one is that Elizabeth Taylor just passed away in the spring, and it seemed like for someone who had such a huge impact on the acting world, this would be a nice tribute. Even though we tried to steer away from the movie, we featured her on the poster. A huge number of us involved with this play are graduating and moving on, and this play really is about growing up and what the meaning of success is — what happens when you grow up. In a way, it’s like a painting of what your worst fears are of where you’d end up: unhappy, bored, disillusioned, and it’s sort of cathartic almost to put on this kind of show, where you’re acting out your worst fears.

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