Laughing Virginia

Two plays give Tucson literary pleasure and comedy gold

Last weekend saw the opening of two plays pretty much at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. And that's quite a spread. More impressively, perhaps, is that each one, within its own genre, is quite successful, although the pleasures they offer are about as different in quality as you can imagine.

The Rogue Theatre is gracing us with a real treat, unseen before in this type of presentation. "The Lady in the Looking Glass" is an adaptation of several of Virginia Woolf's short stories. Cynthia Meier, one of the founders of Rogue, has had the inspired notion of taking her knowledge of—and appreciation for—Woolf's literary efforts and re-imagining them with her sense of what makes good theater. The result is a piece which allows us to revel in the words of this fresh writer of the early 20th century in a presentation which marries her words with just the right touch of theatricality to bring both to intriguing and thoughtful life.

Woolf's contribution to contemporary literature is remarkable, perhaps more so because she was a female force in a time when literature was expected to fall within the historically established conventions determined by men. Her experimentation with writing in the looseness and irrationality of the stream of consciousness style and her focus on the internal thoughts of her characters, often eschewing a narrative style in favor of a more poetic one, brought her up against the literary norms. And the fact that she struggled with mental illness and was hospitalized several times makes her literary legacy more remarkable. She took her own life at the age of 59 by filling her pockets with stones and marching into a lake near her home.

Meier has chosen eight stories for her adaptation. The ensemble of seven actors each has their moment to bring the essence of the stories to life, often supported by other members of the company in moments when such is needed, but only in a quiet and deliberate way. One of the most extraordinary aspects of this approach is that, although it is undeniably theatrical in nature, the focus in each story is always on the character's moment in the light and on Woolf's extraordinary words. Great restraint and economy characterize the nature of Joseph McGrath's direction, and it has paid off in a sensitivity to Woolf's words as they come to life in a sparse but intentional theatrical concept.

There are recurrent themes emphasized by the stories chosen. The metaphor of the mirror, the "looking glass," allows the characters to look not only at themselves, but also through themselves. In the title story, a woman stares at a mirror in which is reflected the interior of the home of an acquaintance, Isabella. Isabella is not in the room. As she looks at the reflections in the mirror, the narrator describes in often fantastical detail the furniture, the drawers in which are stored private papers, and offers an outrageous description of mysterious "tablets" being thrown upon the table, which turn out to be the mail. Although the narrator suggests many qualities of Isabella, she offers no particular information about herself.

All the stories echo themes of wandering minds, observances of self and of others, how the inner life intersects with the private one, how we project our own judgments of ourselves on others. The actors all perform very well. There is, most appropriately, music between the stories and sometimes underscoring them, quite beautifully rendered on piano by Charles Zoll.

Now, across town at Live Theatre Workshop, you can take a magical mystery ride delivering you about 180 degrees from the Rogue's thoughtful take on things. "Move Over Mrs. Markham" is a farce of the first order, full of slamming doors and mistaken identities and attempted sexual liaisons which go woefully awry, all while the most important business is being carried out by characters, some of them unknowingly, that get helplessly caught up in the fracas.

British playwright Ray Cooney has been writing comedies, particularly farces, for decades, and John Chapman, also with an impressive body of work, have teamed their comic genius to write LTW's current rascally romp, and director Stephen Frankenfield has gathered a capable troupe to deliver the goods. And they do so with great gusto.

However, rather ironically, that's about the only speed bump the production hits. Farces are dependent on high energy and an ever increasing sense of urgency as the story becomes more and more tangled and the stakes get higher and higher. But here the energy starts out so high that by the time things are really heating up there seems to be nowhere to go. In a first act of a farce there so many characters and details and plot points to be established, that we need a little--just a little—breath-catching to make sure we are ready to ride the wave when all hell breaks loose.

This is seriously funny stuff, and beyond the pacing issue, there's very little to complain about. Go. Laugh. Enjoy.

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