A scene from Waves
(© Stephen Cummiskey)
A scene from Waves
(© Stephen Cummiskey)
Imagine you're listening to and watching a video-supplemented radio play. Imagine seeing eight black-clad actors (Kate Duchene, Anastasia Hille, Kristin Hutchinson, Sean Jackson, Stephen Kennedy, Liz Kettle, Paul Ready, and Jonah Russell) fulfilling their emoting assignments while also taking on the many technicians' jobs -- the camera-crew work, the sound-effects demands, the silent props placement and removal, the behind-the scenes dresser chores. If you've got those images in your head, you've got a crystal-clear vision of director Katie Mitchell's singular Waves, now in a very limited run at the Duke on 42nd Street courtesy of Lincoln Center.

This stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf's seminal 1931 novel, The Waves couldn't be a more bravura theatrical experiment -- and one that fosters either fierce adulation or utter disdain. As the project -- first seen at London's National Theatre -- unfolds, no viewer would be convicted by a jury of peers for assuming that by final fade-out the lickety-split activity will add up to little more than a mesmerizing stunt.

But the astonishing beauty of the non-stop efforts Mitchell's troupe expend acquitting themselves of so much busy-work lies in the soul-shaking depths the unconventional play ultimately plumbs. Mitchell's approach to The Waves is instantly understood as the equivalent of Woolf's approach to what she refused to label a novel but for which she instead coined term "playpoem."

Call it what you will, the contents are a series of interior monologues by six friends thinking out loud during the years 1893 to 1933. Bernard, Louis, Neville, Susan, Rhoda and Jinny comment in exquisitely minute detail on their ambivalent selves, as well as about a seventh friend, Percival, for whom they all have deep feelings before and after his death. Much of the Woolf characters' contemplating their lives and the world around them is devoted to figuring out who they are -- what makes up a complete person. Because Woolf was depressed during much of her own life and eventually became a successful suicide, there's no surprise in her remaining pessimistic about anyone's ever solving the riddle she ponders or, more than that, anyone existing in less than irreconcilable isolation.

Mitchell cannily matches Woolf's implied observations about the fragmented human psyche by splitting Bernard, Louis and the others into two or more. While one of her players is screened as either say Susan, Rhoda, or Percival, another player reads the character's thoughts at one of the many microphones placed on a stage that set designer Vicki Mortimer has also set with numerous tables, a blackboard, black-metal etageres groaning with props, and a screen to accommodate the scenes the ensemble are enacting live. The tireless actors then supply the sounds of birds flying, of tea being poured, of pens scribbling notes.

While Waves may seem horribly academic, even pretentious to some theatergoers, it's almost impossible to not to marvel at how it coalesces.