Berkeley Rep Rides ‘Waves’ of Isolation

Actors slip in and out of character in Lisa Peterson’s Virginia Woolf meta-adaptation.

During the first movement (of six) of The Waves in Quarantine, performer Raúl Esparza ponders the tricky prospect of moving forward with this project at all. In 1990, he helped playwright and director Lisa Peterson create this postmodern deconstruction of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, later adding music and lyrics by the late David Bucknam. Last year was meant to see a Berkeley Rep-produced revival of the musical for both its 30th anniversary and the Rep’s planned celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday.

When the pandemic cancelled those plans, Peterson and Esparza (along with new composer and lyricist Adam Gwon) were offered the chance to film a virtual version. But, as Esparza ponders in the first movement, how could a story that so intricately chronicles its characters’ interactions possibly work when the entire cast and crew are isolated?

His answer came from the author herself: “Woolf knew what quarantine felt like,” he tells us. “It was her specialty.” Indeed, the lauded author battled depression her entire life before committing suicide at age 59. Fortunately, Peterson, Esparza, and their cast have little interest in dwelling on the melancholy.

If you’re not familiar with Woolf’s esoteric 1931 novel, the first thing to understand is that it doesn’t have a traditional arc. The story — if you can call it that — shifts from monologue to monologue, as six friends contemplate the grand and the mundane, the substantive and the trivial. Its comments on class, gender, and self-identity resonate 90 years later. Given the lack of a proper narrative, it’s appropriate for Peterson’s play to take a similar approach. 

The play is broken up into six “movements” — presented on the website as a playlist of six short films, with runtimes ranging from 10-20 minutes. These movements are mostly performed by cast members staring into their webcams. Each actor is assigned a specific character whose soliloquies they recite, but they also break character and wax philosophical about their own lives and how they relate to the theme of a particular movement.

The movements, given titles such as “The Memory” and “Absence,” usually begin with the actors pondering the novel (which not all of them have read) and life in lockdown.

Fortunately, the expected monotony of another “webcam play” is countered by clever editing and the addition of specially-shot footage by cinematographer Zelmira Gainza. In the fifth movement, “The Sun Cycle,” actor Manu Narayan, reading as social outsider Louis, walks the streets of New York in monochrome. Gainza also breaks up the monotony of the forward-facing “Zoom-vision” by having the performers station their in-house cameras at intriguing angles.

The third movement, “The Female Gaze,” may be the most exemplary of the play’s intentions. It has performers Carmen Cusack (socialite Jinny) and Alice Ripley (depressive Rhoda), discuss the radical depth of Woolf’s female characters — with Cusack raving about how “ferocious” she finds Jinny — before Nikki Renée Daniels (insecure mother Susan) joins them to sing in-character about marriage, parenthood, and the pageantry of courtship. Even in song, the words (some Peterson’s, some Woolf’s, some the performers’ own) carry a refreshing sincerity and revelation.

It’s hard to know which songs are Bucknam’s (reminisced about fondly in the fourth movement, “Absence”) and which are Kwon’s. By and large, they avoid Broadway-style pomp, though some of that does creep in from time to time. The performers are all fine vocalists as well as fine actors, so they know how to belt. Yet, those moments are at odds with the intimacy of this story. All of the music is good, but not all of it seems to fit the journey of the characters or actors.

During “The Female Gaze,” one of the book’s passages appears on screen: “There is nothing staid, nothing settled in the universe. All is rippling, all is dancing; all is quickness and triumph.” One way to interpret that passage is to assume that Woolf, like Sarah Kane later, saw her inevitable death as having no great significance in the grand scheme of things. Another interpretation would be to understand that “this, too, shall pass.”

The sixth and final movement, “Reunion,” finds our cast gathered for a multi-boxed Zoom chat, having not seen each another in person for over a year. They acknowledge the loneliness they feel alongside the optimism growing within them that they might soon reunite in the same place at sometime soon.

Then, one-by-one, they all disappear. Such was the life of Woolf’s characters and such is life in general: acquaintances can stay for a short time or be in your life for years; part-time hobbies become full-time careers; childhood homes become empty houses. The world keeps turning through it all. Peterson’s play is strongest when it and the cast remember that no matter how long this isolation will last, it won’t last forever.

Nothing ever does. 

Waves in Quarantine: A Theatrical Experiment in 6 Movements
April 29 – May 28 | 93 min. (combined) – no intermission
Online | Free (RSVP required) |

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist, and arts critic.

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