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The Window Age

March 6, 2009

Christopher Chen's new play The Window Age, which I caught last night under the auspices of Central Works Theatre Company at the hallowed Berkeley City Club, takes the viewer into the inner reaches of the human psyche. Inspired by members of the Bloomsbury Group like Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey as well as other fin-de-siecle luminaries of art and the subconscious such as Pablo Picasso and Sigmund Freud, the drama offers us an unusual view of the many layers that underpin so-called concrete reality.

The drama tells the story of a downbeat Modernist writer -- a dead ringer for Virginia Woolf by the name of Valerie Fox (earnestly played by Jan Zvaifler in baggy Woolfian skirt, equally shapeless cardigan and unkempt chignon) -- and her bookish, First World War veteran husband Jeremy (a pursed Joel Mullenix.) When a famous psychoanalyst and friend of Valerie's, Simon Floyd (Richard Frederick, who resembles Sigmund Freud only in name and vocation) arrives at the Fox's home for a supposedly innocent drink and chat, the threesome find their thoughts and feelings spiraling inwards.

The playwright builds a fascinating wormhole-ridden world of competing realities. Daily life merges with dreams; dreams rub shoulders with memories; and memories tickle the shadows of half-remembered truths. But like other Woolf-inspired stream-of-consciousness works for the stage such as Jocelyn Clarke's Room and Adel Edling Shank's adaptation of To The Lighthouse (seen at Berkeley Rep a couple of years ago) The Window Age feels at times less like a full-blown drama than it does a precocious MFA theatre studies thesis in Modernist structuring and thought. Chen's ideas don't quite coalesce. The idea of creating characters that stand-in for real life historical celebrities such as Freud and Woolf is startling. But the concept of the stand-in or doppelganger doesn't feel germane to the storytelling. It sometimes feels superimposed and gimmicky.

Designed by Julia Morgan in the 1920s, the Berkeley City Club provides the ideal environment for this play which takes place in the early years of the 20th century in England. The olde worlde charm of the space with its patio doors, high ceilings, grand fireplace and ornate plasterwork easily brings the world of the Bloomsbury Set to mind. The three-dimensionality afforded by performing in-the-round further suggest Picasso and Woolf's multi-perspective works.

But the labored, slightly arrythmic feel of director Gary Graves staging and the plummy affectation of the actors' British accents unfortunately bogs the play down. I wonder whether Chen and his collaborators at Central Works could have more naturally explored the same ideas and material in a U.S. setting with Gertrude Stein and her entourage standing in for Woolf & Co's?

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