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Elevator Repair Service sends up and adds on to Albee's seminal play
Obie-winning avant-garde theatre company Elevator Repair Service (ERS) is known for deconstructing classics and transforming them into bold new works, whether it's an eight-hour reimagining of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises with dance breaks or a screwball comedy take on Measure for Measure. The troupe's latest remix is a feminist revision of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? called Everyone's Fine with Virginia Woolf, currently running at Abrons Arts Center.
"I love Albee's play," says Everyone's Fine playwright Kate Scelsa, who describes her show as both a spoof of the source material and a piece of fan fiction. "There's not a lot of reason to criticize something you don't care about. The reason to engage with a text is because you love it and are obsessed by it."
Although Who's Afraid is set at a disastrous dinner party featuring two couples, one young and pliable, the other older and manipulative, Scelsa's memory of the narrative centered around the middle-aged character of Martha and her over-the-top sexuality. "I remember seeing Elizabeth Taylor in the movie in that aging wig with a cigarette and tight pants and being sassy as hell and her being too much and loving it," Scelsa recalls.
However, the end of the play, when Martha's husband George decimates her by killing off their fictional son, always bugged the dramatist. "Theatrically speaking it's a genius turn," she admits. "But for someone who is watching that play because they are obsessed with Martha, it's really disappointing." Scelsa questioned what it meant for a queer man like Albee to write a character of "heightened femininity" and then destroy her.
So Scelsa's Everyone's Fine becomes a kind of sequel to Albee's play in which Martha reveals her secret plans for vengeance that have been percolating for the last 20 years. A gleeful takedown of the patriarchy with too many Scelsian zingers to cite, Everyone's Fine rises above pure parody with surprising turns. The entire third section of the show is George's journey to Hell accompanied by Carmilla, a slash fiction writing vampire grad student. "I liked the idea of George having it all explained to him," says Scelsa, pointing out how she wanted Martha to ruin George while also allowing him to have moments of humanity. "If you're just tearing down it's not a complex position," she explains. "It's not fun for me if it's just a punching match where one character is victorious and the other is dead on the floor. Nothing is that simple."
Scelsa actually began drafting Everyone's Fine for kicks as a way to avoid working on her second novel. "You have zero expectations when you're just amusing yourself," she says. She had always wanted to see ERS company member Vin Knight play George in Who's Afraid. As the writing flowed she began to imagine other troupe members in roles: Annie McNamara as Martha, April Matthis as Honey and Mike Iveson as Nick. (The vampire grad student, played by Lindsay Hockaday, came later.) "I am such a fan of these actors and I started to indulge what I would want to see them do," she says.
Fun and mischief are paramount in ERS productions, and that's certainly evident in Everyone's Fine. "We take madness seriously!" declares Scelsa, who's been working with the theatre company as a playwright and performer for the past 16 years. The cast is precise and madcap under John Collins' direction. Knight is a harrumphing George who swerves into Tennessee Williams territory to become shrill and arch. McNamara's Martha goes full-throttle -- just when it seems she's exhausted her stage antics, she'll raise her leg to her nose in a hilariously random physical gesture. Matthis's Honey is wide-eyed but knows how to wring laughs from the script before making a memorable stage exit. Iveson's Nick is easy, breezy and sleazy. And Hockaday's Carmilla is woke without being overly preachy.
Scelsa felt she could be extra bold when writing Everyone's Fine since she knew these outrageous characters would be in the hands of ERS veterans who would go wherever she steered them, especially with Collins, the company's founder and artistic director, at the helm. "He's the one who put these weirdos together in the first place," she says. "It's my favorite company doing my favorite play. The experience is emotionally overwhelming."
Eliza Bent is a playwright, performer, and sometime pundit. Follow her on Instagram at @getbentobox. Follow TDF on Instagram at @officialtdf.
Top image: Vin Knight and Annie McNamara in Everyone's Fine with Virginia Woolf. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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