Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? features wicked games, on the rocks
A crack team of actors delves into the brilliant, booze-soaked dialogue of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Vancouver audiences might recognize actor Kevin McNulty from his ongoing television roles, which include Agent Fuller in The X Files, Stanley Wasserman in Robson Arms, Dr. Warner in Stargate SG-1, and Dr. Arnett in Millennium. But in the past two years, he has been doing more theatre. This holiday season, he has been rehearsing the iconic role of George, the heavy-drinking history professor in Edward Albee’s 1962 classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Director John Wright has assembled a stellar cast for Blackbird Theatre’s production of Albee’s script, which runs at the Cultch Historic Theatre from Monday (December 28) to January 16. Gabrielle Rose will play George’s abusive wife, Martha (the character played by Elizabeth Taylor, opposite Richard Burton, in Mike Nichols’s famous 1968 movie version of the play); Craig Erickson takes on the character of Nick, a handsome, recently arrived professor of biology; and Meg Roe is Honey, Nick’s booze-swilling wife.
Chatting with the Straight in the Playhouse Theatre’s production facilities on East 2nd Avenue, where the cast is rehearsing, McNulty mulls over his work in the electronic media. “I’m a utility actor,” he says. “If you need somebody who can spout the exposition and say the big words—the scientist roles or the doctor roles—and memorize all the lines, and hopefully shoot it all in one day, that’s me.”
George and Martha, on the other hand, are characters of great depth. When the middle-aged Martha invites the younger Nick and Honey home for late-night drinks after a party, she and George launch into an orgy of alcohol-fuelled head games. Martha identifies featured entertainments such as Humiliate the Host, Hump the Hostess, and Get the Guests. Over the course of three wickedly witty acts, George and Martha abuse and amuse each other. It looks like their relationship may collapse, but George struggles to find a way for them to exorcise their demons and stay together.
During a fight after Martha has seduced Nick, George objects to her callousness, and she replies, “You can take it!! You married me for it!!”
McNulty says George didn’t realize it when he married her, but things evolve. “Within a relationship, you figure out what buttons you can press to make it more exciting, especially as the sexual aspect becomes less exciting. Martha had expectations of George—that he would take over the university perhaps, or at least the history department. But she’s not getting her wishes met that way, and it just rolls over into ugliness.”
Still, McNulty insists, “George needs Martha to exist. He loves her. I don’t think that George is anything without her.”¦Even in the most awful parts of the game, he’s doing everything for Martha, and if she shows any interest, it’s like a pat on the back for him.”
The verbal richness of Albee’s text—an argument about the moon may be a reference to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—reflects the complexity of George and Martha’s relationship. After years of delivering the minimalist dialogue favoured by film and TV writers, McNulty is revelling in Albee’s style. He thinks back to an experience in the 2007 Presentation House Theatre production of Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, about a sexual relationship between a man and a barnyard animal. “I have never been so comfortable on-stage. For the first big scene with Jay [Brazeau], I would walk out there and, because of the writing, I would feel like was wrapped in velvet. It was so smooth—everything answers everything else. And we’re at a point now where I’m starting to feel like that with this one [Virginia Woolf]. Albee is so brilliant with dialogue that it makes memorizing lines easier. You know what you’re going to say because you can’t say anything else.”
He goes on to note that the writing in Virginia Woolf is operatic, and that director Wright is approaching the script as if it were a score. “John sang with the [Vancouver] Cantata Singers,” he explains, “so his terminology is music. He calls the opening of Act 3 ”˜Martha’s aria’, and George has his own aria about drinking in New York. And John talks about tempo—where it’s pizzicato, and so on—and about where it’s loud and soft, where it crescendoes.”
Asked what he has to say to people who might think that Virginia Woolf might sound overly demanding as holiday entertainment, McNulty replies: “It’s funny! It’s unbelievably funny! We actually thought we should put that on the poster: ”˜There’s singing! Dancing! Many laughs! Come on out!’ ”