What Happens When Elevator Repair Service Stages a Play?
Watching Elevator Repair Service’s production of Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf, a play written by Kate Scelsa for the company (which runs at Abrons Arts Center through June 30th) provides an opportunity to contemplate what makes a company’s work quintessentially their own. ERS has carved out its reputation largely by treating non-dramatic texts (such as novels The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, and Supreme Court oral arguments that provided the text for their show Arguendo, to name just a few) as though they were dramatic; in effect, staging that which was not created with the intent to be staged. Their aesthetic, with its sly humor and presentational style, and the intellectual rigor required from its audience while experiencing an ERS show from this period, was often born out of and then reenforced by creative problem-solving; how will they stage this?
Recent ERS productions have veered away from the literary (at least of the pre-existing variety), including their initial foray into staging an actual play (by Sibyl Kempson) and, intriguingly, by treating Shakespeare more as a literary text than as a “play with the intent to be staged,” in their manic version of Measure for Measure. To a certain degree though, the Kempson play (Fondly, Collette Richland) also felt as though it was formally (intentionally) unstageable, more a fever-dream fantasy than narrative drama, and so ERS’s aesthetic methodology was allowed to remain largely intact; whatever you thought of those productions, they were recognizably Elevator Repair Service.
Which brings us to Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf, a new play that is, among other things, inherently stageable. The author Kate Scelsa, a member of ERS since 2002, describes the work as a “very passionate love letter” to the company, which seems, for better or worse, to be an accurate statement – the characters are writ large and positioned perfectly in sweet spots of their respective performers, longtime ERS veterans Annie McNamara, April Matthis, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, with a cameo by Lindsay Hockaday. But it also might be an unintentional indicator of one of the main problems I wrestled with while watching the show – if it’s a love letter instead of un-staged artifact, where is the space for the ERS aesthetic to do its work? What happens if instead of colliding with and wrangling a text, the company simply clears the low hurdle and stages it?
Although, I hesitate to apply the standard “play” lens to Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf. It’s not exactly narrative, although it borrows heavily from various narrative source materials, most obviously Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but also with a steady dose of other references (Tennessee Williams & the vampire series Twilight somehow both pop up). It’s funny – a silly, punch-drunk over-the-top revision on the original Albee in order to give Martha her just revenge against the material. Vin Knight in particular stands out with his embodiment of what I’ll call a displaced “male” hysteria, tearing his way through Tennessee Williams monologues with particular aplomb. The play’s central theme is certainly clear enough (maybe too clear?), with its pointed critique of male writers (in addition to Albee and Williams, Woody Allen is evoked and then dismissed) and their tendencies to minimize female suffering as behavioral quirk while positioning the same suffering in a male as overarching societal condition. Touché.
But if Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf functions as a feminist deconstruction of the Albee original, what’s left for ERS to do? How do you deconstruct a deconstruction? It doesn’t help matters that the play feels incomplete – more of a heavily referential and ultimately over-extended riff than a complete dramatic work. One way to deal with such a text might be to push back against its more overt tendencies (I think of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s eventual solution of staging its verbatim text by elevating it to high sitting room drama, which played directly against the casual/contemporary subject matter). Instead, in John Collin’s staging, the performers double down on the material, so much so that it sometimes seems to start referencing itself along with the other sources. But referential + camp still equals camp – it’s hard to make something more campy than it already is, and so once the amusement of the character depictions wear thin and the deconstruction of the original narrative structure is accomplished, there isn’t anywhere else for the production to go – it’s not equipped to reconstruct.
That said, there’s a fantastic and seriously surprising scenic transition that’s worth sticking around for, and it’s not like the show is very long, clocking in self-consciously at around 75 minutes. Additionally, the production feels very much a product and depiction of the frenzied chaotic cultural moment we’re in right now. Tear it down – all of it – with the hope that a solution will eventually present itself, even if, for the moment, there is no readily apparent solution to be found.