Virginia Woolf would've loved NYU's 'Freshwater'

Queen Victoria, floating onstage on a jaunty white rocking horse, is played by a distinguished (male) French sociologist wearing a wig and layers of black lace.

A porpoise dressed in tie and tails obligingly swallows the wedding ring of a young actress who decides to leave her husband.

The English poet Alfred Tennyson adoringly reads his own works, in French, to anyone who will listen. He is wearing a long Santa Claus beard and is played by - believe it or not - one of the founders of the theater of the absurd himself, Eugene Ionesco.

All the jovial, incongruous absurdity that went into the New York University production of ''Freshwater'' (two nights only, Oct. 20 and 21) would have undoubtedly delighted its author, Virginia Woolf. The very fact of the production itself would probably have surprised her even more. (The production will be offered in Paris on Nov. 7).

''Freshwater'' was written by Woolf in 1935 for an at-home performance by and for her family and friends, who made up the famous circle of English avant-garde writers, artists, and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury group. The next day she described the event in her diary as an ''unbuttoned laughing evening.''

She chose as her characters real-life figures of the late-Victorian era whose values she enjoyed making fun of. There is Julia Margaret Cameron, Woolf's own great-aunt and the first professional woman photographer in England, and her husband, philosopher Charles Cameron. As happens in the play, they actually did leave their home on the Isle of Wight for Ceylon (Woolf changed it to India, because the word was more euphonious), equipped with the coffins they would need for the return journey. Then there was the 46-year-old symbolist painter George Frederick Watts and his 16-year-old wife, actress Ellen Terry.

In the play, it is Ellen who feeds her wedding ring to the porpoise, as she prepares to elope with a dashing young officer from the Royal Navy. Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson completes the friendly circle of self-absorbed ''artistes'' who rant and rave about beauty, truth, genius, and art. In this play, Virginia Woolf and her friends obviously had a wonderful time poking fun at themselves.

The ''ground rules'' were to remain the same as for the original production. The performers were to be not actors but eminent literary figures, who would portray eminent literary figures of the 19th century, much as the eminent literary figures of the 1930s had done. Mirrors reflected within mirrors, if you see what we mean.

The production took place one time only at the Pompidou Center in Paris last December, and large crowds were turned away. Everyone involved, however, obviously enjoyed himself so much that the Center for French Civilization and Culture at New York University arranged, with a few cast changes, a two-performance visit to New York. And to satisfy all those disappointed Parisians, another performance is scheduled for Nov. 7 at the large Theatre du Rond Point.

Who could be more absurdly appropriate than Eugene Ionesco for the role of Tennyson? Or Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the leading novelists and filmmakers of France's New Wave, as philosopher Charles Cameron? (Robbe-Grillet may be best known outside France for his screenplay of the Alain Resnais film ''Last Year at Marienbad.'')

The distinguished cast also includes surrealist poet Joyce Mansour as Mrs. Cameron; the drama critic of Le Nouvel Observateur, Guy Dumur, as the painter Watts; and Florence Delay, novelist and professor at the University of Paris, as Ellen Terry.

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