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George and Martha can't live with, or without, each other. At the end of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? two questions surface: Can they live without the fantasy, the one safe subject, that held them together? And -- as emphasized in the Old Globe Theatre's staging -- can they live without an audience? Does public performing hold them together as well?

The play's always had Shakespearean echoes. Like Lady Macbeth, Martha's stuck in a male-dominated world. A faculty wife in a small New England college -- New Carthage, which suggests Dido getting dumped by yet another wayward Aeneas -- her only means of influence is through her husband. When he fails to advance in the history department, so does Martha, who resorts to "internal subversion" for revenge.

Near play's end, George tells Martha that the moon went down and came back up. She disagrees. He insists. The byplay recalls Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, where, to show his command over her, Petruchio tells Kate that the sun is actually the moon (and "shall be moon or star, or what I list"). Unlike Kate, who assents to her husband, Martha refuses to accept George's fiction. She maintains an equal, albeit fragile, footing.

The Old Globe's staging is less epic than most, and at times too tidy (Alan E. Muraoka's pleasant living room set's hardly the "dump" Martha sees). But it stresses the play's most important Shakespearean echo: how much of George and Martha's late-night routines and charades, performed before Nick, an ambitious young professor and his "mousey" wife Honey, is just an act? Nick tells George, "I don't know when you people are lying." To which George replies, "You're not supposed to." So how insane are George and Martha? And how insane is Hamlet?

Martha says insanity is "the refuge we take when the unreality of the world weighs too heavily on our tiny heads." Hamlet could have said that.

In the intimate Cassius Carter, which puts the loose-cannon couple in your living room, not miles away on some proscenium stage, the audience has Nick's (and Horatio's) perspective. Are we watching reality TV? The George and Martha Show? They're obviously on display (even review their efforts). They rip into each other and their guests, pull back for air and yet another cocktail, and scathe anew. There's even a familiarity to the scenes they play: as if part-rehearsed and part-improvised. Is this role-playing therapy? Do they need an audience to open up? As the "games" proceed -- "Humiliate the Host," "Get the Guests," "Hump the Hostess," and, the clincher, "Bringing Up Baby" -- and blood flows "under the bridge," is it truth or illusion, the sap of life or catsup?

Under Richard Seer's expert direction, for much of the evening, you can't be sure. He treats Act One as a sitcom. George evokes more deep laughter than any Neil Simon comedy. The spirit of "Fun and Games" infiltrates Acts Two and Three so effectively that, when "total war" prevails, the laugh sign's still up for many in the audience. This reaction would show lack of directorial control in other comi-tragedies. At the Carter, however, the slippery line between the acted and the actual makes laughter as appropriate a response as shock.

When Martha tells George he doesn't know the difference between truth and illusion, he replies, "No, but we must carry on as though we did." To which Martha adds, "Amen." And they do.

What stays real throughout are the effects of "performance" on Nick and Honey. Childless, like George and Martha, they too have secrets. Played by Nisi Sturgis, Honey erodes from an airhead ditz to a disaster area. When disillusionment shreds Honey, the trembling, emotionally blasted Sturgis almost steals the show.

Scott Ferrara's Nick needs more underpinnings. Albee wrote the character as a blond, all-American jock with Josef Mengele leanings. If Nick had his way, he'd genetically engineer diversity out of existence -- including the George and Martha's of this world. Nick burns to rule (why else would he drag his wife to a 2:00 a.m. soiree?). Ferrara just scratches the surface and misses the character's vaulting ambition. Nick says he doesn't like to "get involved," but deep down he's thinking tenure-track, master race, and invade Poland.

On opening night, Monique Fowler had yet to put Martha's myriad pieces together. When Alan Schneider directed Uta Hagen for the world premiere in 1962, he told her to "make big choices." Fowler does as well. But the stagy, arm-waving gestures, frozen faces, and abrupt vocal risings and fallings too often feel planned, making Martha's bipolar relationship with George an unequal match.

James Sutorius's George, who holds his liquor better than a Viking in Valhalla, turns most of Act One into a stand-up routine and exerts an almost Prospero-like control over events. It's as if he's read the play and knows the pain their public "show" will cause. But, Sutorius makes clear in a deftly modulated performance, because he loves Martha, he'll forge ahead and risk it all.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

Old Globe Theatre, Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Balboa Park

Directed by Richard Seer; cast: Monique Fowler, James Sutorius, Scott Ferrara, Nisi Sturgis; scenic design, Alan E. Muraoka; costumes, Charlotte Devaux; lighting, Chris Rynne; sound, Paul Peterson

Playing through June 24; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.

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