Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is scary good

By Chrissy Steinbock — Thu, 14/04/2016 - 01:40

It’s one dark, stormy, sexy, funny story rolling in moments of tenderness and cringe-inducing cruelty. Wait, all at the same time?  Now playing at the Gladstone theatre, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf packs all of this into one brilliant story set on one fateful night. Fair warning, it can get pretty intense.

It’s easy to see the attraction of Who’s Afraid. The award-winning play (Tony, New York Critics’) has proven itself a classic with a look at relationships as incisive today as it was when written in 1962. As strong as the script is, it’s also very demanding. Luckily, Bear & Co. have assembled an all-star creative team for the show. In the director’s chair is Ian Farthing, former Artistic Director of the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in Prescott who's in from Vancouver for the production. Farthing leads an exceptionally strong cast featuring Rachel Eugster (Martha), Paul Rainville (George), Grace Gordon (Honey) and Cory Thibert (Nick).

It’s two in the morning when we meet Martha and George, together more than twenty years and beset by resentments, regrets and each other. They’re stuck but as Paul Rainville who plays George says “this is the night when things come un-stuck so it’s kind of a fascinating journey.” They live in a quiet university town, she the daughter of the university president, he a history professor. They’ve just returned from another dull faculty party and to keep things edgy Martha has invited the handsome new professor and his wife over for some “fun and games.”

George and Martha’s ferocity as they go at each other is like watching a disaster in slow motion and naturally, you can’t look away. “Any couple gets to know which buttons are which and they press them rather viciously,” says Rainville.

I got the chance to speak with director Ian Farthing and actor Paul Rainville for an inside perspective of what makes the play great and why it’s a must-see. Here is an excerpt from our respective conversations, edited for length and clarity. 

Couch Assassin: You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, as have the presenting company and the cast members.  Coming from that background why do this play?
When you get the opportunity to work on a classic play like this that opportunity doesn’t come along very often so I couldn’t turn that down. Having worked with a lot of Shakespeare I love words, I love wordplay and this piece, the language that Albee uses is just so full of verbal dexterity. It’s a war of words and it’s reminiscent of Shakespeare. George and Martha’s verbal sparring - there’s a lot of references to boxing matches in the play and our set is an image of a boxing ring. That’s why we’ve kept it tight and small so they’re kind of in a ring circling each other. That relationship is reminiscent of some of Shakespeare’s male-female couples like Kate and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew or Beatrice and Benedict in Much ado about nothing. They’re always having that verbal jousting and that’s very attractive to me.

CA: Do you have a favorite moment?
That’s like asking somebody who their favorite child is (laughs). I have to say the final moment. The final moment after everything this couple has gone through and us in the audience have gone through we see this moment of the two characters together and when two people really love each other, although there’s all this sometimes quite vicious game playing that goes on between them. What I want people to come away with in the end is the knowledge that these two people do really love each other right down in the core, in the marrow of their bones. There is love between them and that’s why they can hurt each other so much. I want people to go away with that beautiful image of the two of them reunited, ready to go into the next phase of their lives together.

CA: Do you find it arduous?
It’s a challenge in terms of energy. It’s a mountain to climb as an actor. It’s also an incredible journey and a joy to play the language. The language is so incredibly rich and I guess the ending to me is when all is said and done and Martha and George have a quiet moment at the end together. That to me is pretty amazing that he brings them to that point. He doesn’t solve things and he doesn’t band-aid things but he does bring them to a point of quietness together after all the mayhem.

CA: So we’re allowed to come down from the roller coaster ride?
Yeah, that’s a good description of it, it is a roller coaster ride.

CA: What does it take to do this production well?
It involves a number of tools from the actor’s tool belt and certainly one is the ability to speak language and a love of language and the musical antenna that allows for a kind of symphonic approach to the text. There are movements that go through great emotion and then come to great quiet, as well. So there’s that, the technical ability but it also asks for an amazing amount of vulnerability. You have to be able to lay yourself bare and be emotionally naked in a way that allows for a lot of pain and mischief and joy and cruelty. It covers a whole range of human emotion.

CA: Why is this must-see for audiences?
You get a chance to see Paul Rainville at the top of his game. He is a superb actor, one of the best actors in the country who just happens to live here in Ottawa and loves to work here in Ottawa. To see him in the role of a lifetime is a must-see. This play also, has not been done in Ottawa in 33 years which baffles me. I don’t understand that because this is a smart city. It’s filled with academics, it’s filled with civil servants and politicians who are all people that use their brains and use words all the time. This is the sort of play that appeals to that sort of person so I’m hoping that they’ll come out.

Couch Assassin: Paul was mentioning it’s a very intense experience. How should audiences approach this? Should they ready themselves for an emotionally wrenching experience?
I hope so but in the midst of all that intensity and, did I say viciousness? there’s a lot of humour, it’s very funny. There are moments all the way through which give you a chance to relax. Somebody said last night at the dress rehearsal when they were watching, you get to the end and you feel like you’ve drunk as much as the characters have on stage just by watching these guys go through all this and I think it would be kind of fun if the audience comes away feeling like that as long as them come away with the positive feeling that we’ve got love triumphing at the end.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Bear & Company
The Gladstone Theatre
Thursday to Saturday April 14-16 at 7:30PM
Click here for ticket info.

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