The SITI Company's new show, Room, is a stark, experimental piece of theater on a plain set -- three white scrim walls and a chair -- about a writer's ordinary day. From the advance press you may have the idea that it's about Virginia Woolf, but SITI Director Anne Bogart has admitted the piece is less about Woolf than about writing itself. "It's about the space a person needs to create," says Bogart.
God knows anybody would pay to see such a thing: Watching a novelist work is like watching a butcher make sausage. Room, though, is still a tour de force. It starts before the house lights darken, with Ellen Lauren standing in the middle of one aisle at the Cowell Theatre. "Good evening," she says. The crowd falls silent. "Before I begin, I must ask you to imagine a room." She walks crisply to the stage, and goes on to perform -- in an arctic, schoolmarmish style -- the first few pages of A Room of One's Own, Woolf's personal essay about writing, which began as a speech to university women on "the question of women and fiction."
Lauren "performs" the essay in the sense that she delivers it the way Laurie Anderson delivers words, finding a tone of voice and a movement for every line. Lauren's movement is smooth and organic, perfectly controlled, but the text itself is plotless and sometimes bland. From A Room of One's Own Lauren moves in and out of other writing by Woolf, including journal entries and her book A Sketch of the Past. Sometimes a rhyme or a passage, a memory, an anecdote -- one of Woolf's famous digressions -- will possess Lauren like a demon; she'll strike an unusual pose, the lights will glare, and the three-scrim room will reveal itself as a radically different space until the show returns to what passes here for normal.
Anne Bogart and her company have grown famous in the last decade for teaching this kind of precise physical acting in a process she calls "Viewpoints." For the month of March the Cowell Theatre should become a pilgrimage site for legions of Viewpoints students in the Bay Area. (There are more than you'd think.) Another SITI show, Bob, runs after Room, which ends this weekend; Bob is based on the persona of Robert Wilson, the avant-garde director who's developed plays with Tom Waits and Philip Glass. The plays are intended to form two-thirds of a trilogy, the third part being a still-unperformed script called Score, about Leonard Bernstein.
None of them, I guess, will have plots, but they may have trajectories, as Room does. Lauren arcs through the phases of a tortuous mind to give us a character who resembles Virginia Woolf. First she explains to the audience about fiction, feminism, and the "ecstasies and raptures" that lead to her bouts of creation -- all in the tic-ridden tone of a novelist struggling to write. About an hour into the show she stops theorizing about raptures and passes into one. Movements and poses she's established during the lecture return like motifs in a symphony. Using methods that belong to music or dance, Room builds both a portrait of a woman burning under layers of Edwardian convention and an impression of artistic flow.
In my opinion the play should end right after the rapture, but it continues for another 15 minutes. ("Convention demands that a lecture must end with a peroration," Lauren explains at the end. I forget the peroration, but it wasn't worth the wait.) The 85-minute performance seems to last two hours. The fact that it works at all, however, is a testament to Lauren's talent as a performer and Bogart's skill as a director. Bogart has paced the show beautifully with Christopher Akerland's lights and a soundscape by Darron West, which involves piano sonatas and pounding surf. (Woolf drowned herself in the ocean.) Room won't be to everyone's taste -- like some sausage -- but it has an eloquent rhythm of its own.