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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Who’s annoyed with ‘Ordinary’ Virginia Woolf?

Published: February 17, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

To be fair, I have read about two pages of Virginia Woolf’s work, specifically two pages of “Mrs. Dalloway.” From those two pages, I gathered that party planning was a big deal way back when. This was the only knowledge I had about Woolf when I went to watch “Ordinary Mind, Ordinary Day,” a play written by theater Professor Adrianne Krstansky and Abigail Killeen, and directed by Krstansky and Eve Kagan. Although I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to follow the show, I didn’t realize the extent to which I would be horribly confused and even mildly angry.

The show is supposed to come off more as a conceptual piece, a true piece of “theater” than anything else. It is roughly broken into three parts, each reflecting a different short story written by Woolf. The first part titled “Strangers on a Train,” based on the short story “An Unwritten Novel,” focuses on Virginia Woolf’s younger self. It is a medley of scenes ranging from her struggles as a writer to her sexual abuse as a young child to reflective rides on a train. The second part “Rest in Peace,” based on “The String Quartet,” features a girl reacting to the loss of her boyfriend, presumably a soldier in, interestingly enough, the Vietnam War. The last section, titled “Kew Gardens” based on the eponymous short story, was written by the Ensemble and added a nice touch to the show.

My initial comment on the show is how hectic it is. The ensemble consists of 14 people and frequently all 14 are on-stage if not sitting in chairs off to the side, sort of as a dugout for the performers. Seated to the side of the ensemble is a seven-piece band that complemented, if not enhanced, the show very well. As a whole, however, there were about 20 people visible at all times, which lent itself to the “distressed and depressed ” aspect of Virginia Woolf but also made the whole experience all the more traumatic.

The show begins with Eve Kagan (listed in the playbill as “The Writer” but essentially a crazed Virginia Woolf) discussing the concept of writing and of theater, which foreshadowed the ambiguity of the show. Now, there have been previous Brandeis productions in which plot wasn’t the primary focus (“Dog Sees God” and “Waiting for Godot” immediately jump to mind), and they were staged successfully. In “Ordinary Mind, Ordinary Day,” it is almost continuously unclear what point is trying to be made. The first part, “Strangers on a Train,” focuses on young writer Virginia Woolf (mostly played by Cathy Messier ’12) but is also directed by Eve Kagan as the inherently insane Woolf, resulting in Kagan yelling from off-stage and pantomiming Messier’s actions. This idea is further diluted by the fact that many women end up playing Woolf. Thus, in this section of the show, many things seem to happen at once to varying levels of success. In one of the more visually impressive scenes, Minnie Marsh (Grace Fosler ’14), one of Woolf’s characters, stands bawling on a train. The ensemble does a very good job of pretending to be on a train, with several taller men holding up the handrail onto which the passengers hold. As the train screeches to halt, the passengers accurately fall backward slightly, as Fosler continues weeping. Messier-Woolf decides her moods and her movements, and it’s interesting to see the scene play out.

Another good scene from “Strangers” was a very intimate one depicting sexual abuse and featuring Aliza Sotsky ’15 and Yoni Bronstein ’13. It is part dance, part acting and all emotion. No words were spoken in the scene but the connection between Sotsky and Bronstein was amazing; the trust that Sotsky had in Bronstein before his betrayal is very powerfully portrayed by their body language. The band was playing beautiful music during the scene and brought it to a whole new level. Overall, this was the best scene of the show, hands down. Even though the progress of the show itself was confusing, this scene was strong enough to stand on its own.

The rest of “Strangers” consisted of the ensemble yelling (Kagan most of all) and running back and forth amid general confusion. At one point, Messier-Woolf kisses her character Minnie Marsh, much to Kagan-Woolf’s dismay (and the audience’s incredulity).

The second portion, “Rest in Peace” is made no better even with a new focus of the show, the woman who lost her boyfriend (Stephanie Ohebshalom ’15 and Jordan Brown ’12, respectively). This is made even more confusing because another woman (Anneke Reich ’13) is supposed to be the same woman, but is slightly saner.

The really aggravating part of the show, past the complexity of what is occurring on-stage, is the music. The band was spectacular and, combined with on-point sound effects and lighting, the stage was literally set for an amazing show. The presence of a bassist, cellist, violinist and clarinetist filled Laurie Theater with amazing music and made the production feel richer. The ensemble’s singing, however, really killed whatever mood the band was creating. Solo singing, or even in a duo, worked very well—Ohebshalom and Reich in particular. In a group, though, something was off. The singing seemed to come up randomly as if in a bad episode of “Glee” and, when it was appropriate, the voices didn’t blend together perfectly, giving the moment a bad aftertaste. All in all, the singing could have been done away with and may have made the confusing scenes more tolerable.

The only part of the play that wasn’t incredibly bewildering was the last part, “Kew Gardens,” a series of monologues written by the ensemble themselves. The reflections presented a much more relatable experience and allowed the audience to internalize better what was occurring on-stage. Some monologues were personal and touching, including one that told the story of a girl whose mother didn’t love her. On the other hand, some of the monologues just seemed like shallow problems that you listen to only because the other person is your friend. Overall, the last section was my favorite and was a good place to wrap up the show.

“Ordinary Mind, Ordinary Day” tried very hard to have you thinking about life and get in your head after the play. When I left the show, though, I only had a headache.