Edward Albee Festival starts at Arena Stage

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 5:29 PM

A debate rages over whether it's useful to experience the life's work of playwright Edward Albee simply by having actors read aloud his scripts. On one side are organizers of Arena Stage's Edward Albee Festival, who say the 26 staged readings of virtually every Albee play produced since the late '50s - from works such as "The American Dream" to "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" - constitute a rare opportunity to float at length in the dazzling metaphorical universe of one of America's greatest living dramatists.

On the other side is Albee himself. "I'm not so sure about how this whole reading thing will work. I mistrust readings," grumbles the writer, who turns 83 Saturday. He worries that his prose - intended for more vibrant platforms - will end up competing with the sound of snores. "Some of them will be okay. Some of them will work better than others," he adds, resignedly. "I try to, but I can't control the world."

People who know him say that the skeptical tone is vintage Albee, a man who, no matter how elliptical his characters can seem, is enamored of straight talk. Fierceness is another trademark of the indelibly undiplomatic personages he has created over the span of six decades: Think of venomous Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" or the restive Jerry, fulminating over his love-hate relationship with a neighbor's dog in "The Zoo Story." ¶ Albee's reservoirs of passion and playfulness, his sense of daring and mischief, will churn and swell over the next several weeks in the corridors and performance spaces of Arena Stage, as the ambitious festival pores over his work. (Albee says he's unaware of any previous undertaking of the entire canon of this range.)

Included are two full productions: one by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Arena's own staging of "At Home at the Zoo," a pairing of 1959's "The Zoo Story" with a prequel to it that he wrote a couple of years ago. These, Albee says, are the entries that for him are the most worthwhile.

That is not to say, however, that the sparer stagings will not generate spikes of imaginative energy. The parade of readings begins Monday with Albee's 1981 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" and then hopscotches back and forth, in no particular order, through full-length masterpieces such as "A Delicate Balance" and shorter works that reveal Albee's embrace of the absurd, such as "The Sandbox."

As is the case with "Lolita," directed by Round House Theatre's Blake Robison, the readings of many of the plays are being guided by other theater companies in town that are coming to Southwest Washington at Arena's invitation. The readings conclude April 24, with a recital of Albee's 1966 "Malcolm," overseen by director Michael Dove of Forum Theatre Company.

David Dower, Arena's associate artistic director and the guiding force behind the festival, says the all-inclusiveness evolved in conversations with the playwright. "He was so touched at the notion of seeing them all that we knew we were doing the right thing," Dower says, adding that the point of hearing Albee's work is an immersion in the rhetorical craftsmanship of a theater poet and technician.

"Listening to him talk about his plays, and he was so linguistically precise about them, it reminded me how precise his characters are," Dower continues. "From a reading standpoint, it's the linguistic construct of these worlds."

Albee is doubtless well known, especially as a result of the 1966 movie version of "Virginia Woolf" with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that's more fondly remembered than it deserves to be; a much more rewarding touchstone was the play's 2005 Broadway revival with Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner that eventually visited the Kennedy Center. But because he has so steadfastly remained a man of the theater, his is not a crossover sort of fame. Although he's won three Pulitzer Prizes - for "A Delicate Balance," "Seascape" and "Three Tall Women" - his renown is largely confined to a few famous titles.

More to the point, he's not for dabblers. His plays provoke and puzzle and require your complete engagement, for an Albee play can verge on opaque. The scaldingly funny George and Martha of "Virginia Woolf" are less emblematic of his output than, say, the miniature house that lights up ominously in the 1966 "Tiny Alice," the marvelously peculiar story of the seduction of a lay Catholic brother by a wealthy matriarch. So, in a sense, a playgoer signs up with Albee for a long-term relationship, not a one-night stand. Because so few prominent dramatists these days devote themselves exclusively to the stage, Albee's commitment to his audience feels almost quaint.

He's revered in the theater for his ceaseless experimentation, of a type often grounded in a comprehension that there are questions, mysteries and fears we all share. When, for instance, in "A Delicate Balance," the best friends of Agnes and Tobias show up at their house, saying they were stricken with a generalized terror in their own home and now want to move in, Albee weaves a predicament both discomfiting and hilarious. Who hasn't been nagged by the sensation you no longer belong or felt the need to be protected from the world?

"He's the master who you look at your own work in light of," explains Amy Freed, a playwright ("The Beard of Avon") who is in residency at Arena and will direct Albee's "The Man Who Had Three Arms" on March 13. "I don't pretend to understand all of his work, but I've had the experience of feeling rearranged by it. Just the amount of provocation that he creates: the half-tones and undertones and resonances. So he's daunting, like his work is sometimes daunting, but there's nobody braver."

The intellectual affection for Albee's style is such that students, especially, forge powerful connections when they are introduced to his plays. "He's probably my favorite American playwright," says Maya E. Roth, director of Georgetown University's Theater and Performance Studies Program, who is directing "A Delicate Balance" on April 11 and 12. She says that she teaches him often and that in learning about him in tandem with that other modernist master, Samuel Beckett, students are intrigued about the bridge between minimalism and "a world they recognize. It makes them reflect."

Albee in his eighth decade remains a vigilant guardian of how he is perceived and how his plays are performed. (He still teaches playwriting and drama courses each spring at the University of Houston, where he is at the moment.) In November, he came to Arena from New York to meet with the directors of the proposed readings. "Edward being Edward," Dower says, "when we all sat down at the table, he counted around and said, 'Well, this isn't everyone. Where are the rest?' "

The dramatist's goal was to preempt any tendency the festival might have to calcify into a symposium. He told the directors he wanted the pieces to stay fresh. "I said, 'The one thing I don't want you to do is rehearse these staged readings to death,' " he says by phone from Houston. " 'What I want you to do is get some really good actors, maybe run through the plays once or twice, give them their heads, and let's have some spontaneity here.' "

Paul Tetreault, the producing artistic director of Ford's Theatre, says he recognizes in Albee's involvement in the Arena event the dramatist he became close to over several years at the Alley Theatre, the Houston company for which Tetreault worked and which regularly produced Albee's plays. One time, after reviewing Alley's production history, Tetreault remarked to Albee on how popular he had been with the company.

"I said, 'Edward, I've gone through all the years of records, and you are the second most produced playwright for us, after Shakespeare.' And he said, 'We should fix that. I really should be the first.' "

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