The Waves in Quarantine Review. Raúl Esparza, Virginia Woolf, incomplete lives and friendships in isolation

It’s challenging even just to describe “The Waves in Quarantine,” a digital “Theatrical Experiment in 6 Movements” starring six beloved  Broadway veterans,  which is available for free from Berkeley Rep through May 28. 

It’s a musical adaptation of a novel by Virginia Woolf about six lifelong friends,  for sure — sort of, but not completely.  

It’s also not completely a documentary look at the six performers, their lives in isolation and their friendships during the pandemic.

Nor is it completely a book club, panel discussion, or reunion, though it’s a little of each.

 It doesn’t feel completely thought through. So, despite the talent and plenty of blissful moments, this series of six short films lasting a total of some 90 minutes doesn’t completely add up.

“The Waves in Quarantine,” we’re told, was inspired by two previous works: The first is Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel told from the various points of view of six lifelong friends, which traces their lives from childhood to middle age, and a single day from sunrise to sunset.

 In the first “movement,” Raúl Esparza seems to be promising that “The Waves in Quarantine” will explain the novel: “Even though The Waves is an intimidating avant-garde masterpiece, I get it,” he says to the camera, holding the book in his hands. “It’s about how we perceive the world around us. And how those perceptions add up to create a particular life.”

“The Waves” does seem like a timely novel about isolation and despair, at least on paper. Woolf writes in it: “I need silence, and to be alone and to go out, and to save one hour to consider what has happened to my world, what death has done to my

The second inspiration for “The Waves in Quarantine” was the 1990 musical adaptation of Woolf’s novel by 24-year-old composer David Bucknam and writer-director Lisa Peterson, which ran for a month at New York Theatre Workshop to respectful reviews.

Esparza tells us that as a teenager he fell in love with the music, and the composer (who died in 1998), which led him to the novel. He teamed up with Peterson, now at Berkeley Rep, to restage the musical three decades later, with additional music and lyrics by Adam Gwon. But their project was shut down by the pandemic. So they turned it into something different.

Each movement ends with the sort of glorious singing that they surely initially conceived. Movement 2 segues from conversation and a quote from Woolf (“Style is a very simple matter. It is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words”) into a wonderful small symphony of sounds – Esparza tapping his coffee mug,  Carmen Cusack her mixing bowl, Darius de Haas trilling….

In Movement Five: The Sun Cycle, there is a voiceover throughout most of the ten minute film of all six performers — Carmen Cusack, Nikki Renée Daniels, Raul Esparza Darius de Haas, Manu Narayan and Alice Ripley — singing lyrics taken from the first few lines of Woolf’s prose  (“The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky….”) as we see Manu Narayan asleep in bed, his image ghostlike over an image first of the sea then of Times Square (presumably this is what he’s dreaming about?) Then he gets up, makes breakfast, puts on his mask, makes his way from snowy suburban home to snowy barren city and back again. He gets a call. “Hey Raúl….I would love that….What time?”

That call offers the subtlest taste  of a central (and problematic) conceit of “The Waves in Quarantine” – the overlapping of the performers and the characters whom they are supposed to be portraying.

In all the movements except the fifth, before the singing, we see the performers at home, in their kitchens, in their studies, talking. They talk about 

1. how they’re trying to figure out their characters (“I still got to find my way into Neville, you know….he’s complicated,” Darius de Haas says at one point over the phone to Raul Esparza; “I’m trying out figure out who Jinny is,” Carmen Cusack says at another point.)

2.  their own lives (“When we come back, hopefully when we come back, it’ll feel like starting over,’ says Nikki Renee Daniels.)

3. how  their own lives compare to those of their characters (“Rhoda likes to be alone because she likes to be alone. I like to be alone for similar reasons. But it’s partly because I know I have to be alone to get my work done,” says Alice Ripley. What work is Alice Ripley talking about? Isn’t she a performer? Does she mean when she’s memorizing a script? )

The most exasperating aspect of this deliberate pairing of identities is that we learn little about Woolf’s characters; it’s as if the creative team expects everybody to have studied the novel, so we should be fine making do with the performers’ cursory and oblique references to the characters they’ve yet to figure out.  Yes, the performers offer some candor about their own lives during this year of isolation. But, with all due respect to such talented performers and sympathy for their experiences, it’s unclear why it’s an improvement to have their stories virtually replace those by Woolf.  When Carmen Cusack tells us “I’d rather be carving wood, I’d rather be writing songs. I’d rather be doing anything than talking about myself,” I couldn’t help two reactions: 1. What’s stopping her? 2. What would her character Jinny rather be doing?

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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