The same could be said of Berkeley Repertory Theatre's titanic world-premiere stage adaptation of To the Lighthouse. Like Welles' battle against American literature's least cooperative sea mammal, playwright Adele Edling Shank's attempt to set sail for English literature's most amorphous landmark is Captain Ahablike in its misguided heroism.
The first thing to point out about Virginia Woolf's famous 1927 novel is its flagrant undramatizability. A hypnotic 1984 BBC television adaptation starring Rosemary Harris and Kenneth Branagh proves the work to be less intractable than many suppose, yet it's safe to say that translating To the Lighthouse into drama isn't easy: Nothing really happens in this stream-of-consciousness narrative about the ravages of time and memory on human experience besides an aborted trip by members of the well-to-do Ramsay family to deliver a pair of knitted stockings to the local lighthouse keeper's son, and the loss of an antique brooch. There's little in the way of dialogue (and what conversation there is revolves around cricket, sandwiches, and the weather) and most of the conflict takes place inside the characters' heads.
If Berkeley Rep's To the Lighthouse ultimately sinks somewhere in the channel between landlocked literality and watery abstraction, it's not because of a lack of vibrant ideas for making stage sense out of Woolf's essentially conflictless, plotless novel. On the contrary, Shank and her principal collaborators director Les Waters and composer Paul Dresher find plenty of striking theatrical equivalents to match the intensely personal language of the original. The production, ironically, suffers from too much inspiration. Where Woolf's novel laps the mind with gentle, undulating waves of thought, Shank, Waters, and Dresher drown us in an overwhelming visual and sonic tsunami.
It all begins calmly enough. In Dresher's dissonant, expressive score (performed on stage by a live string quartet), a plaintive arpeggio motif played high up on the first violin accompanies the flashing beam of the lighthouse across a mostly bare, moodily lit stage. Like the screech of a seagull or the sound of loneliness itself, the music acts as a potent metaphor for the book's central theme of the suffering caused by the passing of time. The plain rectangular screens and mirrors lined up like headstones around the sides of the stage in Annie Smart's spare, modernistic set communicate a similarly complex message. They suggest reflection, death, and a blank artist's canvas. (Painting is an ongoing theme in the novel. Woolf explores the highs and lows of the creative process through the character of visual artist Lily Briscoe.) Besides the antic pratfalls of Edmond Genest's Mr. Ramsay, who appears to be performing in an entirely different play to everyone else, the acting style echoes this pensiveness. Characters move about the stage in a stately trance, narrating snatches pulled directly from Woolf's text with clipped stiltedness. ("Yhoo shell goew tooh tha leightheise soohn.")
Eventually, though, the languorous pacing of the first half gives way to a cacophonous urgency in the second. Dresher's increasingly fitful, stürm and drang-laden music accompanies a dizzying succession of portentously symbolic visual images. First, a rheumatic old housekeeper puts dustsheets over the furniture. Then we see portraits of Mrs. Ramsay projected on screens at the back of the stage. Next, cascading sand falls from above onto the late Mrs. Ramsay's antique chair, now covered in a white sheet. After that, a stream of water falls onto beds once occupied by a couple of the Ramsays' children. Various characters walk on, pause ominously in front of sepia self-portraits projected on the screen behind them, and walk off. At one point, the lights turn red and the screen shows aerial footage taken from a wartime fighter plane. At another, a baby cries. By the time the 16-minute assault on our senses has drawn to a close, we're utterly bewildered, not to mention bored. This heavy-handed attempt to theatricalize the mercurial "Time Passes" section of Woolf's novel, in which 10 years slip by almost without notice despite a number of momentous events in the life of the family, fails to suggest the swift passing of time. Instead, it feels interminable.
In the final act (which takes place, as in the novel, a decade after the first part), the theatrical ship comes away from its moorings completely as the characters Mr. Ramsay, his now grown-up children James and Cam, and Lily Briscoe exchange spoken dialogue for sung recitative. The concept of turning the last section of the production into a piece of musical theater is a bold move. The string playing, which gradually moves into the foreground during the course of the show, ought to sweep over the characters and their story like a great temporal tidal wave during the final scene. But nothing prepares us for this sudden jolt into the pseudo-operatic realm. The combined effect of the characters' bickering and the actors' nasal, American musical theater (as opposed to operatic) voices drenches us in cold water.
The flotsam and jetsam of flamboyant ideas that make up To the Lighthouse only really comes together in one scene, but it's a memorable one. Seated around a long, meticulously set dinner table like Jesus and his disciples in Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper (foreshadowing, perhaps, the biblical overtones of the closing sentiment of the play and the novel, "It is done; it is finished"), the characters articulate their internal thoughts out loud, while miming their external conversations with each other. This conceit simply and sublimely dramatizes Woolf's stream-of-consciousness technique, while allowing the characters and their conflicts space to dance like the flickering candle flames endlessly reflected in the mirrors.
"At this stage of his career, it is absurd to expect Orson Welles to attempt anything less than the impossible," wrote Tynan of Welles' whale of a belly flop. "Mere possible things, like Proust or War and Peace, would confine him. He must choose Moby Dick, a book whose setting is the open sea, whose hero is more mountain than man and more symbol than either, and whose villain is the supremely unstageable whale." To the Lighthouse might not reach its destination, but in a world where playing safe is the norm for most commercial and large-scale, nonprofit theater companies, there's something exhilarating and admirable about Berkeley Rep's tumultuous effort. The company deserves a maritime salute just for pushing the boat out.