Septimus and Clarissa – Keith Parham

Septimus and Clarissa, a “relentlessly, almost nerve-rackingly ambitious”1 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” by Ellen McLaughlin was directed by Rachel Dickstein for Ripe Time, Inc. at Baruch Performing Arts Center in September, 2011.   This production was a theatrical experience that captured the notion of a heightened consciousness with its constantly shifting psychological landscape. It is an apt example of humanity’s weather: the mental tempests experienced by a World War I veteran suffering from PTSD and the emotional storms of a socialite, evaluating and dissecting her life.   The audience became immersed in this story because the text, the music, the movement and the design, all given equal weight, were constantly shifting in perspective and scale, just like thought. The themes were universal and rooted in every person’s relationship to their own emotional feelings and memories of love, death and the aftermath of war. As we neared the 100th Anniversary of World War I, Virginia Woolf’s words about the violence of war thrust the audience into the political current of thought about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The audience left the theater in tears of sadness and joy, transformed.

The gorgeous, haunting, original music by Gina Leishman was nearly through-composed, providing a musical counterpoint to the spoken text and occasionally took precedence, particularly during dance sequences. Septimus and Clarissa was created in collaboration with the ensemble: Craig Baldwin, LeeAnn Hutchison, Paula McGonagle, Ellen McLaughlin, Tom Nellis, Henry Stram, Susan Pellegrino, Tommy Schrider and Miriam Silverman. The transformative Scenic Design was by Susan Zeeman Rogers. Oana Botez-Ban created the gorgeous period silk Costumes that moved with the actors. The expressionistic Lighting Design by Keith Parham instilled each moment with emotional clarity. Jane Shaw’s Sound Design exquisitely blended the original music with sounds of the day. The integrated design of the show allowed the audience to fill their senses and let go; to ride the unpredictable and mutable path of the story.

The Set Design created the physical vehicle for capturing the fluid quality of thought.   The major set piece was a frightfully tall rolling iron staircase, with gratings to climb and iron spikes pitching forward.    The staircase moved in arcs, like hands of a clock through the hours, each arc a new thought. Sometimes the staircase was moved all the way downstage into the space of the audience for an intimate perspective. The back wall and floor were expressionistically painted with additional, exaggerated staircases to dizzying effect.   When the audience walked into the theater, they became aware of a sense of danger and vertigo. They saw Clarissa sitting in her room at the top of the stairs and Septimus, in his claustrophobic house under the stairs, madly writing on the floor and the walls. With the first note of music, Clarissa stepped out onto the stair and the whole staircase moved and spun like a whirlwind into the story.

Other set pieces added to the constantly shifting landscape by altering scale. Three rolling miniature London Townhouses were moved and positioned to denote all of London. One of the townhouses was revealed towards the end of the play to be a dollhouse replica of The Party, complete with characters dressed in Oana Botez-Ban’s costume sketches.   Handheld open frames became windows and doors and English chairs suggested the architecture of London. Fabric props like the large green silk dress that Clarissa wore on the staircase, transformed her into a giant version of herself and a very long white cloth was both Clarissa’s bed sheet and Septimus’ nightmarish binding. Throughout the performance, the expressive and shadowy lighting constantly shifted the view from inside the character’s minds.

Rachel Dickstein’s staging and choreography was dynamic and thrilling. Her integration of the design elements, spoken text, music and physical performance resulted in an organic, breathing form of storytelling, which served as a psychological connective tissue to the audience.   The collaborative design of this production employed the transformative elements of theatre to carry the audience on a tempestuous journey into the minds of the characters and their own.

Septimus and Clarissa received a Drama League Nomination for Outstanding Production, a Drama League Nomination for Outstanding Actor for Ellen McLaughlin, a Drama Desk Nomination for Best Original Score for Gina Leishman and a Joe A Calloway Award for Outstanding Direction to Rachel Dickstein.

1 New York Times, September 15, 2011


Directed by Rachel Dickstein
Original Score by Gina Leishman
Set and Object Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers
Costumes by Oana Botez-Ban
Sound Design by Jane Shaw


Photos: Richard Finkelstein