It is always interesting to look at an important piece of Americana through the fresh eyes of someone from another culture. It can be illuminating, but it's also risky with a subjective artistic medium such as theater, a gamble that Arlington's Classika Theatre wins with its current production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
This season's visiting director, Constantine Tariloff, formerly with the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre, has mounted a bracing production of Edward Albee's seminal American play that remains faithful to the original but also provides a fresh look that reveals unfamiliar facets.
For the first time, Classika, which usually focuses on foreign playwrights and is in the Russian theatrical tradition, presents the work of an American playwright. It is also the first time that Tariloff has worked with American actors.
Tariloff's steady hand is evident from the first moments of the play, when he lets the actors take their time. Married couple George and Martha, he an underachieving college professor and she the daughter of the college president, are just home from a night out. Both are drunk.
The actors skillfully convey the ephemeral sense of longtime familiarity with each other, whether engaged in raucous laughter or in the natural, realistic pauses between fireworks -- quiet time that Tariloff is not afraid will slow this long play.
The chemistry between actors Marcus J. Fisk and Kate Revelle is palpable, a sense of physical and mental intimacy embodied in the way George carefully wipes off lipstick Martha has playfully smeared on her face or in how their bodies naturally gravitate to a familiar embrace as they dance.
This creates a strong base for Tariloff's view that Albee's play, which native directors usually interpret as demonstrating the superficiality of human emotions in a failing American dream, is actually about love. Tariloff describes it as "strange love . . . different love . . . love that is hidden, love that looks and sounds like hatred."
The couple's movements are stylized, almost ritualistic, as they climb and crawl around their small living room, so wrapped up in their own world that they ignore a ringing doorbell long past the point when any other couple would have been driven mad by it.
We slip effortlessly and deeply into this couple's complex relationship, carried along on what builds gradually into a wave of verbal violence as George and Martha's games start to draw blood in each other and in their late-night guests, a young professor and his wife, Nick and Honey, played by Michael Way and Rachel Speicher.
Both couples have barricaded themselves from reality to survive, and the drinking and pointed banter of a long night together unleash a fierce, rhythmic energy that builds to a first-act finale in mimicry of sexual relations. This adaptation is two acts, rather than three and more than 30 minutes shorter than standard versions.
Frankly, the play could end right there. Tariloff and the hardworking cast have managed to show us pretty much what there is to know about the characters at that point, even though how they specifically reconcile themselves to unearthed realities does not come until later.
The production is not perfect, but the faults are minor. The unaccredited lighting design goes from bright to dim every time some secret is about to be revealed, the predictability of which is distracting.
In addition, Way's depiction of Nick is strangely grim and tight. Although the play is set about 1960, Nick wears a ponytail, an anachronism that Tariloff may not be aware would never have been tolerated in that time and place.
Tariloff also has George reading a copy of the play we are watching. The message there is unclear: Art imitates life imitating art, perhaps?
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" continues through March 9 at Classika Theatre in the Village at Shirlington, 4041 S. 28th St., Arlington. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m Thursdays-Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays. For tickets or information, call 703-824-6200.