To quote from the director’s notes, ” ‘Room’ traces the movement of a creative spirit in exquisite crisis.” In its portrayal of “an artist in the pressure cooker of articulation,” the play is intended to be an examination of “the room to move, the room to breathe, the room to imagine, emotional room, creative room.” This is all very helpful because, without the clarifying program note, one might think this highly stylized performance piece was about a woman with a mysterious neurological complaint that compels her to grimace madly and hurl herself about the stage in spasmodic twitches.
From the moment Ellen Lauren — in a severe black dress, skin-stretching hairdo and alarming rictus grin — makes her entrance from the front of the house to deliver an academic “lecture” to her captive audience, we know we’re in for a demanding experience. Not that there’s anything the least bit daunting about the text, culled by Jocelyn Clarke from the novels and essays of Virginia Woolf and worked into a seamless meditation on the joys and terrors of artistic creation.
It’s a lush text, and a subtle one as well, incorporating a variety of Woolf’s nuanced thoughts on “the folly of writing” — from her forthright declaration that, for a woman who dares to pursue this solitary art, “a room of one’s own is not a luxury but a necessity,” to her sorrowful elegy for Charlotte Bronte (“How could she help but die, young and cramped with her lot?”) and other writers of her creative sisterhood, choked by their indignant anger at having to trim their talents to gain entry into a man’s profession.
But Anne Bogart’s direction conscientiously discourages her solo performer from examining Woolf’s reflections on these matters in a (God forbid!) natural manner, by testing them with her mind, tasting them on her tongue and then delivering them up as an act of communication. Indeed, Lauren’s attention is not so much riveted on the meaning of the words she speaks as Woolf as on the author’s excruciating effort to grasp, hold and eventually articulate each thought. Whatever she happens to be saying, Lauren is playing the process of creation.
Although provocative in theory, the directorial concept suffers in its performance application, which requires Lauren to deliver the verbal text with the stiffness of a self-conscious public speaker, while expressing the subtext through ritualized hand gestures and full-body movements that, while corresponding (one must assume) to Woolf’s state of creative being, have little connection to the content of the words. (Does that right-handed stretch above the head mean that Woolf is reaching for inspiration, or trying to catch a fly ball?)
Although the designers undoubtedly mean to be helpful — by washing the empty box set with a changing light palette of pale blues, greens and grays, and by opening up a window projection here and there to let in a little metaphorical light — the encoded color patterns share no obvious connection with Lauren’s facial grimaces and body contortions, and provide no cues to the text.