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Ellen Lauren is Virginia Woolf in Room
(Photo: AJ Zanek)
Ellen Lauren is an arresting presence on stage--and off stage, too. The beginning of Room, a new, highly stylized Virginia Woolf bio-drama, has Lauren sitting in the audience under a harsh spotlight as the crowd filters in. When the right moment comes, she rises abruptly and greets us, startled and sheepish, then carefully makes her way to the stage. There she stands for a long moment, regarding us as we regard her. With other performers, such a moment might be tedious or uncomfortable, but Lauren's confidence is such that our hunger for the moment when her silence will break only grows. Everything about her is expressive: the eyes that dart rapidly to and fro, the large, gesturing hands, the sharp and careful pronunciations.

And what words Lauren is given to pronounce! The text of Room is adapted by Jocelyn Clarke from Woolf's own writings; the title comes from A Room of One's Own, well known from many a Women's Studies class. Over the course of the show's 80-or-so minutes, Lauren discourses with Woolf's famed eloquence on everything from the terrifying delight of reading T.S. Eliot (one "feels like an acrobat, jumping from line to line") to the experience of being covertly molested by a creepy half-brother. Some of the prose in Room will make you scramble back to your bookshelf in search of Mrs. Dalloway or Orlando; Woolf's way with a sentence was absolutely extraordinary.

So, if Berman is so eminently watchable and Woolf's texts remain so fascinating, why is Room such a bore? Directed by Anne Bogart of the famed SITI company (where Lauren is associate artistic director), this portrait of a lady is quasi-biography, quasi-character study, and quasi-philosophical meditation. Alas, it is also rarely more than quasi-interesting. Lauren-as-Woolf gives us bits of childhood memory, vigorous (though always polite) defenses of the rights of women, and considered opinions on the power of art--but these snippets are so disordered as to be disorienting, so unfocused as to be unsatisfying. Someone, whether Clarke or Bogart, has failed to do the difficult work of connecting the samples of great writing into a coherent, engaging piece of drama.

This scattered quality may well have been a choice (as certainly was the stylized vocabulary of gestures that Lauren uses throughout--a specialty of SITI). Woolf, after all, struggled all her life with madness and depression, a struggle she ultimately lost; at age 59, she walked into a river, her pockets loaded with stones. If the idea of Room is to give us a glimpse into a disordered mind and, perhaps, to explain how such a mind was still capable of such prodigious creativity, it succeeds only in brief flashes. Towards the end of the evening, for example, Lauren's Woolf slips into ecstasy, abandoning her clipped tones and careful manner. She flings herself about the stage balletically, speaking rapturously and rapidly about how writing sustains her by allowing her to channel the pain of existence into the joy of creation--about how art sustains all of us. It is a shockingly beautiful passage.

But much too much of Room is neither shocking nor beautiful; indeed, the piece has a dutiful, dull, and pretentious quality about it, a fate risked by any art about art. Bogart, Clarke, and Lauren know darn well that they aren't going to answer the ineffable questions raised by Woolf's life: questions on the overlapping origins of madness and art, on the construction of memory, etc. ("If life has a base," intones Lauren early on, "it is memory.") So they raise the issues and just sort of bat them around, relying on the considerable beauty of Woolf's prose and Lauren's estimable abilities to make the exercise satisfying.

At several points in the show, Lauren's Woolf says that she is often dissatisfied with biography and with memoir because such books relate events in the life of the subject but rarely convey the actual being of the person. On that score, Room seems to be offering itself as a correction, as if by giving snippets of Woolf's life rather than the whole--and by approaching her interests and obsessions slantwise instead of head-on--we will find ourselves closer to the actual essence of the woman. But, though Lauren's performance is certainly fascinating, the result is too muddy and too meandering by far.

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