Experiment on a Woolf 

Funny, confusing, captivating, and weird, the Berkeley Rep's To the Lighthouse doesn't quite work in the end.

In writing Berkeley Rep's world premiere adaptation of To the Lighthouse, Adele Edling Shank deserves some credit for not being afraid of Virginia Woolf. There's not much dialogue or action in Woolf's 1927 novel about the Ramsay family and numerous guests at the Ramsays' summer home on the Isle of Skye circa 1910, just the stream of everyone's consciousness as people sit around thinking about what the others are thinking.

How, then, to turn this inner world inside out and make it theatrical? Shank's answer seems to be "Lots of ways," and she proceeds to try them all.

One thing you can say about this adaptation — it sure is interesting. Aside from Christal Weatherly's costumes, nothing in associate artistic director Les Waters' production is particularly of the period, least of all Annie Smart's streamlined, ultramodern set. Off the left wing are two large boxes with white screens in front and mirrored panes on the side. The rear box is lit inside to reveal a string quartet, and out of the front one rolls the children's bedroom. On the right side of the stage, a porch protrudes from a dark transparent plastic doorway. Projected on a screen in the rear are video close-ups of clouds, flowers, mixing paints, rain on the window, a table being set.

In the first scene or two (the program says two, but it's too impressionistic to say where one ends and the other begins), the story is told partly through dialogue but mostly through soliloquies in which characters express their own and each other's thoughts, sometimes in the first person, sometimes narrating themselves in the third person. Sometimes characters not otherwise in the scene walk out into the foreground to narrate, and it's unclear whether they're simply elsewhere or recalling the scene years later. This last touch is made more confusing because these actors, Clifton Guterman and Whitney Bashor, play offstage siblings of the two children onstage and later those same children grown up. (There are eight Ramsay children, only four of whom we meet.)

The purpose of this patchwork approach might be to preserve some of Woolf's literary zingers as intact as possible, and many of them hit home. But it's sometimes hard to follow a thread between the bons mots, and you just have to enjoy them for their own sake.

Certain thoughts are considerably underlined, as when Monique Fowler as matriarch Mrs. Ramsay emerges from passive inertia to linger lovingly over passages about the pointlessness of life. This approach works admirably as a delivery system for Woolf's words but serves more to take viewers out of the scene than keep them engaged in it, and Mrs. Ramsay remains elusive. Rebecca Watson's Lily Briscoe is called upon to do the same thing, but Watson brings such passion and good humor to the rumpled painter that it's easy to chalk up her discursive observations to an artist's keen and darting eye.

The show's crowning achievement is the dinner scene at the end of the first act, not incidentally the only one in which a single approach to externalizing the characters' internal lives is used throughout. We never hear any of the dinner conversation, but rather each character's private thoughts as each is spotlighted subtly by Matt Frey's lighting. It's a captivating and often hilarious device, particularly in David Mendelsohn's agitation as awkward young snob Mr. Tansley. Also quite funny is the concealed apathy of old friend Mr. Bankes, to whom Jarion Monroe gives an outgoing and sardonic presence. Noah James Butler and Lauren Grace scarcely appear as young lovebirds, but their outsize energy here leaves a lasting impression.

Almost unheard from at dinner are the thoughts of the great thinker Mr. Ramsay, a white-bearded academic in decline somewhat stiffly embodied by Edmond Genest, who's more convincing in silent repentance than in his sudden outbursts. His Mr. Ramsay often comes off as a dotty old loon, which is fine if he's intended to be a mostly comic figure, but it hardly gives him anywhere to go from there.

After intermission, things get weird. Initially Paul Dresher's minimalist score is used only between scenes, replaced during the action by sound effects: birds chirping, dogs barking, children playing. But during one fifteen-minute scene depicting the passage of ten years, the music takes over entirely as the house falls into decline. The strings ebb and flow with the passing of seasons, and build and fade as several characters pass away.

Highly stylized as it is, this approach makes sense for the "Time Passes" section. The bizarre part is that the final scene is mostly sung. Apparently 1920 is a future opera world in which everyone sings their innermost anxieties. The music sharply underscores the surviving characters' agitation, but no one has been singing up to this point and it's not at all clear why they should start doing so now. It's simply an interesting device among many that never quite cohere into a whole.


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