Not many can claim the title of great American playwright. But, if one could claim such a title, Edward Albee would be the top contender. Known for his mastery of the absurd and his cutting examinations of families and relationships, Albee was recognized with three Pulitzer prizes and two Tonys. His play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is considered one of the great American plays of all time.
Albee is also the man who wrote a two-act play about a man who fell in love with a goat.
While Sylvia is not one of the works chosen for ALBEE FEST, Firehouse Theatre is presenting nearly two weeks of Albee’s seminal works, including Marriage Play, The Sandbox, and The Man who had Three Arms.
Jacqueline O’Connor, who performs in The Sandbox and Finding the Sun, is excited to be participating in her first Albee performance.
“I have never had the opportunity to do an Edward Albee piece,” she said. “This was an opportunity that I jumped on, because specifically these pieces are not done.”
O’Connor, who’s a staple of the Richmond theatre scene, remarked on the rare chance to play the dynamic, nuanced characters of Albee’s imagination.
“They are all very multi-faceted characters,” she said. “Yes, they are absurd in nature, but they are grounded in real people who are flawed.”
ALBEE FEST is the brainchild of Jon Kretzu, a Portland native who has previously directed works at Quill Theatre, and confesses that Albee is not only an artistic inspiration, but holds a personal connection.
“I had a lovely meeting with him early in my career,” he begins.
Kretzu explained that he was in his twenties and running his local campus theatre when he was inspired to contact Albee for permission to perform his latest work, The Lady from Dubuque.
“It was kind of a disaster on Broadway,” he admits, speaking of the play.
Kretzu wrote to Albee and didn’t receive word for a year, until he received a call from campus saying that Albee had contacted the office and wanted to speak with him.
“So I called him and he was in town and he said I hear you want to do my play let’s talk about it.”
So, Kretzu and Albee met at a local café and talked. Kretzu recalls how attentive Albee was, how he never interrupted and really listened to what the young actor and director had to say.
“It’s one of those moments where you go, ‘oh okay maybe I am doing the right thing,’” he said. “I got to meet him ten years later and he remembered me, which was really amazing. He’s always been very dear to me.”
While Albee is known for Virginia Woolf, Kretzu and the Firehouse team decided to perform some of his more esoteric works, some that haven’t been performed for years. Some of them, such as Marriage Play and Counting the Ways, only involve two cast members.
“All you need is two people with a conflict,” Kretzu explained. “That’s drama right there.”
Albee was known for featuring small casts, usually couples or two couples, and focusing on the relationships between its characters.
“He really likes that kind of tight, claustrophobic feeling. There’s a certain excitement about just a few people, or just two people. It’s something he really revels in and is really effective.”
Marriage Play and Counting the Ways are both about marriages and, in the way of Virginia Woolf, a microscopic view into a marriage imploding.
“Marriage Play is very confined, very talky, lots of intricate language, and not a terrible amount of action. All the action is in the relationship,” he said. “Counting the Ways is totally the opposite. It’s all these really brief scenes with a lot of entrances and exits, a lot of movement.”
“Each play is its own fascinating little world.”
Ethan Malamud, who performs in Finding the Sun, The Play about the Baby, and The Sandbox, said that what most attracted him to Albee’s work was the purposeful obtuseness.
“He’s very abstract in a very realistic way” he said. “He’ll cut straight into the intent of a conversation instead of going through the reality of the conversation.”
Albee’s career started in the late fifties, taking off with Zoo Story in 1958. A half a century has passed, and yet his works are still lauded as undeniably relevant.
“I think it’s because he observed human behavior,” Malamud said. “The core of that hasn’t changed very much.”
“I really think his writing is so multi-dimensional,” O’Connor explained. “And, even if it’s absurd, it’s grounded in real behaviors and people who all want something desperately but are flawed and the way they try to get these things are so human.”
At the time of many of these works, Albee’s plays were considered crass, vulgar, and shocking. As time has passed and language changed, Kretzu remarked on why Albee’s work still retains is shock value.
“It’s because the shock isn’t really in the words,” he explained. “The shock is in what human beings can do to each other.”
ALBEE FEST is being presented by Firehouse Theatre from April 3rd through April 14th at 1609 W. Broad St in Richmond. Tickets are $15 a night or $30 for the entire FEST. Additional festival events include Albee’s performance installation KNOCK! KNOCK! WHO’S THERE?! and cocktail parties after each performance.
Please visit firehousetheatre.org for details.
Top image via Bill Sigafoos