It begins before it begins, which is exciting. As you’re getting settled in your seats, scrutinizing the program and the set, suddenly there’s Ellen Lauren, popping up in mid-auditorium, interrupting your reverie with a crisp, jumpy “Good evening.” Her hair drawn back in the characteristic V. Woolf bun, her profile looking more like the jacket photo on the Quentin Bell bio than any profile alive has a right to, she makes her way down to the stage as the house lights finally dim, and has begun her lecture almost before the spotlight has come up on her to compensate. Then, of course, after all the ceremonial signals have been gotten through and we think we’ve started, her opening words are, “Before I begin . . . ”
This engaging piece of expectation-jolting playfulness, easily recognizable as the work of director Anne Bogart, is the prelude to an event that, like so many evenings of Bogart, is both wise and wrongheaded, charming and maddening. For 85 minutes we’re invited to bask in the mind and sensibility of Virginia Woolf—or as much of Virginia Woolf as Bogart, Lauren, and text compiler Jocelyn Clarke can give us—but Woolf’s is a restless sensibility and a troubled mind, so precious little basking gets done. Asked to lecture on “Women and Fiction,” Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, which gives the evening its spine. But as soon as we get wrapped up in Woolf’s ideas, Bogart in effect changes the subject—or at least arranges an aggressive shift in Christopher Akerlind’s lights—and we are suddenly busy with Woolf’s psychology. Or with the psychology expressed in her fiction, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. Or with her biography, her criticism, her literary associations. None of these topics is exactly uninteresting either. The question is whether, collaged together in this form, they add up to something you can fairly call a theatrical event. It may be worth pointing out that, having broken the fourth wall to start the show, Lauren does not break it again to conclude. The evening ends with her seated in an armchair turned diagonally upstage, away from us. Tilting her head downstage to acknowledge us, she says, “Thank you,” and turns back to contemplate the empty walls of the set as the lights fade to black.
This sedate cessation is not the conclusion of Virginia Woolf’s life, which ended in pain and suicide at one of the world’s terrible times. Nor is it the formal end of a lecture, despite the genteel final acknowledgment. Nor, particularly, does it convey much of the sad fading quality that always seems to me to overtake her at the ends of her novels. Rather than adding to our understanding of Virginia Woolf, it’s an image that —well, it just sits there. In fact, the problem running through the whole work seems to be the quest of Bogart’s lushly inventive visual sense to find an objective correlative (as Woolf’s friend T.S. Eliot would have put it) for the words of this most delicately cerebral of writers. She strives mightily; the visual shifts in this compact, one-person piece are as violent and extreme as any I can remember in Bogart’s work. There are shadows and spotlights, as well as banks of floodlights on the downstage sides; windows are projected on the blank walls, and patterns on the floors. Darron L. West’s soundscape is dense with music, from single piano notes through 19th-century waltzes into early minimalism. Besides moving around the chair which is the stage’s sole other inhabitant, Lauren moves herself, at various points, in sets of Martha Graham-like gestures; a particularly annoying one, associated with the concept of writing, involves arching the right arm across the chest, like a figure on a mechanical bank. Becoming for brief moments various characters, from Woolf’s novels and those she quotes, Lauren throws herself into still other stylized poses, often accompanied by heavy underscoring or, in some cases, understandably enough, the sound of waves.
The good point to all this is that one does get a great deal of unadulterated Virginia Woolf—infinitely less grudging than the tiny portions of Dickens tweezered out in Simon Callow’s recent solo show—and the constant shifting from one slightly larger than soundbite-size chunk to the next keeps alertness up and brain fatigue to a minimum. Though an uneven actress, whose big emotional moments favor high rhetoric with little emotional grounding, Lauren is an effective and lucid speaker. Her voice could use more tone color but is wide and appealing in range; when the emotional temperature is relatively even, she can get arresting ambiguous effects. (One unwise tack: When making lecture points, she occasionally gives Woolf a misleading hint of schoolmarm spinsterishness, heightened by the prim costume and hairdo.) It’s conceivable that, left to carry the evening herself, with a less fragmented flow of text to support her and fewer visual distractions, she could find inner resources to enrich the performance.
Which, if it were possible, would slice the Gordian knot at which Bogart’s direction pulls here with such anxiety. The significance of Woolf’s art, it seems to me, is its investment in the inner life of the individual—the individual woman, she herself would undoubtedly have said. The gift of the sensibility for recording impressions, and the gift of the intellect for analyzing them, are what enabled her to survive the torments of her childhood and freed her—insofar as anyone is ever freed from such torments—to achieve what she did in writing. Externalizing on the stage an artist who has dedicated herself wholly to the internal is not impossible, but it is the most extreme challenge, which may explain why this essentially gentle piece goes through such extreme changes.
Bogart’s previous portraits, both the successful and those less so, have been of artists whose medium was the external and visual world: Welles, Warhol, Robert Wilson. (One hopes she didn’t choose Woolf because her last name also began with W.) In each case she was able to find a physical life that began in the artist’s own work, and in each case that physicality was the piece’s strongest asset; only in Bob, where the available words were sparsest, were the text and its visualization in perfect balance. But Woolf’s lasting achievement is all words, and while Room‘s great pleasure is that it lets us hear and ponder many fine Woolfian words, it brings along with them the frustration of not having found a physical shape in which those words can live. The room of their own that they require is within a human mind, and unless we find a space in which they can reverberate there, we literally can’t see them, despite all the care and effort Bogart and her colleagues have put into urging us to do so.