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There's no brevity in 'W;t'

Newest REP production makes one think -- a lot

Posted: March 14, 2008 8:00 p.m.
Updated: May 15, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
To truly comprehend and appreciate Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, "W;t" - playing at the Repertory East Playhouse through April 5 - one has to have more than a passing knowledge of English metaphysical poet John Donnne (1572-1631), a contemporary of William Shakespear, but without the Bard's comedic touch.

Yes, to say this guy was serious would be like saying Elliot Spitzer had a slight sex addiction.

Donne's works, notable for their realistic and sensual style, include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons. His poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, compared with that of his contemporaries. He is famous for his Holy Sonnets and intense questions on death, as well as the meaning of life.

All of that being written, however, Donne's work is certainly not something the average man on the street (or the average theatre reviewer, for that matter) is going to easily grasp. But, since Edson's main character, Vivian Bearing, is fanatical about the poet, the audience cannot help but get swept up with the verbal tides - or should I say, tirades.

Bearing (Susan Watkins in her REP debut) is the 50ish professor of 17th Century Literature who not only studies the rather depressing author every waking moment, but almost channels his very being. Perhaps that is why none of her students can relate to her; and why she is a lonely, bitter, sardonic individual.
The play begins with her being told she has ovarian cancer. She relates this in one of many asides to the audience (well, that isn't quite true, since most of her dialogue is directed towards us, her interaction with the other characters could very well be described as asides).

Thus begins her flashback series. To accomodate this, Bearing simply pulls back a curtain from the threadbare set (a solitary hospital bed and an I.V. stand) to reveal the office of Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Daniel Lench, REP's A Few Good Men, The Pillowman). "You have ovarian cancer," he antiseptically intones. At this point, director Erin Rivlin (REP's Hamlet, I Love You're Perfect ... Now Change) utilizes some clever overlapping dialogue; Bearing addresses us while Kelekian drones on about her prognosis in med-speak. She even corrects the doctor's use of languange, establishing how unbearable Bearing can be.
The next hour-plus has Bearing coming to grips with the terminal illness. Not the stuff of big laughs, but Edson does make her scathing wit and caustic insults a mainspring of the production; and Watkins takes the ball and runs with it admirably.

Low-brow comedy this is not, no pratfalls here. The conversation is as sparkling as a Merlot, but the side effects are just as dizzying. When Watkins launches into a dissertation on her abilities, one better have their thinking caps firmly in place; when she begins dissecting parts of Donne's work, it's best to just sit back and take it all in without argument.

More flashbacks follow including those with her father (Lench), a frighened but inquisitive pupil (Amber Clark) and a former professor, E.M. Ashford (Maria Khayat, REP's Arsenic and Old Lace). Meanwhile, more hospital staff is assigned to take care of the cantakerous woman, including a detached young doctor and former student of hers, Jason Posner (Orestes Arcuni, making his REP debut) and a slightly ditzy but goodhearted nurse, Susan Monohan (Bess Fanning, TV series My Name Is Earl).

A brilliant researcher, Posner only took the difficult class just to prove he could pass. He also dreams of curing cancer one day, but can hardly examine his former teacher, and can barely even discuss her disease. Monohan, on the other hand, may not be Bearing's intellectual equal, but she is the only one who can give some measure of comfort in her final days.

And while the play is peppered with verbal exercises of amusing swordplay between Bearing and her doctors, as well as the audience, the production does not gloss over the horrible effects of the malady. Several times the patient cries out in agony which is not only bloodcurdling, but heartbreaking, as well.
"There's a lot of Vivian in me," said Watkins. I had two mothers (one birth, one adoptive) and three close friends who were victims of cancer. The more I got into the part, the more stunned I was at how much I identified with her." After such an emotional performance, Watkins claims she has different reactions when the curtain comes down. "Sometimes, I cry; sometimes, I meditate; other times I just go over how many mistakes I made on stage. It's really a rollercoaster ride."

For her part, Rivlin could only get away with a bare stage and curtain gimmicks for so long. Eventually, the text itself would have to be justified, and she feels this cast did that. "We knew going in that this was a very cerebreal production, so we had to have a talented cast," she said. "I think we were blessed. A lot of actors wanted to do this play, but the whole Donne thing can drive people away.

"I told Susan to just release herself from the responsibility of knowing everything Vivian knows. It seemed to have helped her performance a great deal."

"Yes, admitted Watkins, "there are parts of the dialogue dealing with Donne that I do not understand - at all."

The audience is likely to be just as befuddled, and, at times, the production threatens to become overwhelming. Thanks to Watkins' stellar performance, however, this is an interesting, if not an intriguing edition to this fine company's repertoire.

"W;t" runs on weekends through April 5 at the REP on Main Street in Newhall. For reservations and more information, call the box office at 288-0000.

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