Albee Deconstructed: Robert Wilson’s Three Tall Women

Antonia Tsamouris*

Three Tall Women by Edward Albee. Directed by Robert Wilson. Greek translation by Errikos Belies. Adaptation by Charles Chemin. Costume design by Flavia Ruggeri. Stage and lighting design by Robert Wilson. Original music by Thodoris Oikonomou. Sound design by Thorsten Hoppe. Produced by E-PROD. Cast: Reni Pittaki, Kariofyllia Karabeti, Loukia Mihalopoulou, Alexis Fousekis. Staged at Piraeus Municipal Theatre, Athens, Greece, 24 November 2023 to 11 February 2024.

Edward Albee has been considered a representative of the Theatre of the Absurd in America ever since his very first play, The Zoo Story (1958). While European absurdism mainly expressed the feelings of depression reigning in post-war Europe, its American counterpart attacked the so-called American Dream that presented economic affluence and family happiness as the foundations of society. Albee, an adopted son raised by a wealthy couple hoping to follow the American Dream, was well aware of the deceptiveness behind this idea. His writing fiercely attacked post-war American society and family as the main reasons for the social decay of America. The playwright, who left his parental home at an early age due to his parents’ resentment of his sexual preferences, never saw his father again, and only started speaking with his mother twenty years later, only to realize, after her death, that she too had never accepted him.

The play, which premiered at Vienna’s English Theatre in 1991, was a huge success in repositioning Albee, after almost two decades, among America’s most successful and best-known playwrights. He was also re-established as the favourite playwright of actresses, especially those past middle-age, worldwide, since his very first plays.

Robert Wilson directed Three Tall Women, Albee’s most overtly autobiographical play, in Athens with an all-Greek cast. Known for his formalistic mise-en-scène, he directed the play with a deconstructive perception. The surrealism that is evident in the play’s second act clearly spurred him in this venture, while the first act’s realism, both in dramaturgy and on stage, was sacrificed for the sake of the mise-en-scène, thus eliminating the play’s unique shift from realism to surrealism.

A is a ninety-two-year-old, disabled woman, who lives with her carer, B, a fifty-two-year-old woman. When the play starts, A and B are in A’s bedroom, with her lawyer, C, a twenty-six-year-old woman. At the end of the first act, A has a stroke.

The Three Women (L-R Loukia Mihalopoulou as C, Kariofylia Karabeti as B, Reni Pittaki as A) seated at the beginning of the second act. On the highest chair a mannequin of A, who is in a coma. Photo: Julian Mommert, Marianna Bisti

The second act begins with A in a coma, with B and C next to her. Suddenly, A stands up and starts a conversation with the other two. It becomes obvious that the three women, alphabetized according to age (A, B, C), are three different aspects of the same woman, at three different periods of her life. One of the most interesting points in the play lies in the fact that although Albee constructed the first act in an overtly realistic way, his writing becomes surreal in the second act, deconstructing the realism of the previous act. Thus, he made time and age, especially female ageing, the subject matter not only of the second act, but of the whole play. With this dramaturgical uniqueness, the playwright simulates the ageing process as depicted in the physical decline of A throughout the play. Hence, realism’s gradual deconstruction, from the first act to the second, signifies the ageing process.

This performance’s formalism resulted in a problematic dramaturgy, which Wilson attempted to amend by introducing, between the two acts, the role of the heroine’s son. Although the role of the Son does exist in the play, it is a non-speaking role that appears only in the second act. In this production, the Son was given lines from the first act in order to explain the relationship between the women and the young man, often assumed to be a self-portrait of Albee, as well as showing the reasons that first caused and then widened the rift between Mother and Son in the course of the years. The role of the silent Son in the play asserts the playwright’s own feelings for his mother:

Albee: I knew I did not want to write a revenge piece—could not honestly do so, for I felt no need for revenge. We had managed to make each other very unhappy over the years, but I was past all that, though I think she was not.

Roundané, Matthew. Edward Albee: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge UP, 2017, pp. 136–56

One of the play’s most important themes, the different perspectives of people as they age, was not elaborated, since the first act, where the playwright introduced and developed the three different roles, was almost totally changed in this performance. Albee, well known for his fascinating elderly female leading roles in contemporary theatre, highlighted female ageing both on and off stage by having three actresses at different ages discuss their joys and sorrows, their frustrations and successes, their dreams and nightmares according to their age. Wilson’s mise-en-scène kept only some sentences from the first act, repeating them often throughout the act. He thus concentrated on the topic of time and age, neither focusing on ageing nor allowing the conversation among the three women to develop.

The Three Women (Reni Pittaki as A, Kariofyllia Karabeti as B, Loukia Mihalopoulou as C) in the first act. Photo: Julian Mommert, Marianna Bisti
The Son (Alexis Fousekis) appears between the two acts. Photo: Julian Mommert, Marianna Bisti

This scenic formalism partially balanced the problematic dramaturgy of the performance. The innovative and original costumes and wigs were meant to signify the different ages of the three women and to elaborate on their different perspectives because of ageing. Thus, C, at the beginning of her life, was dressed in a rather colourless dress, still expecting colour, just like her dreams, to arrive in her life, while her perfectly combed, bright red wig signified youth’s tendency to perfection. B wore a red dress, depicting the passion that had encircled her life so far, surrendering to many satisfactions, signified also by her wig, looser and less bright than C’s, showing her abandonment of perfection and her acceptance of a reality that she had neither dreamt nor wished for. Finally, A was dressed in black, in mourning for all her losses and, even more, for the imminent loss of her own self. Her grey, uncombed wig showed her total indifference to and rejection of any social convention. The three women (Reni Pittaki, Kariofyllia Karabeti, Loukia Mihalopoulou), all in Renaissance-look dresses, created a tableau vivant, still for most of the performance, resembling a painting and moving only in a particular pattern. As a result, all three of them were beautiful to watch but lifeless, totally contrary to Albee’s original heroines who are full of life.

Three Tall Women (Kariofylia Karabeti as B, Loukia Mihalopoulou as C, Reni Pittaki as A) in the beginning of the first act. Photo: Julian Mommert, Marianna Bisti

The sound effects, as well as the lighting, had a leading part in the performance. Light and darkness signified the past and the present, desires and frustrations, anger and love. The sounds, resembling either the blowing of a strong wind or a very hard knock on a wall, served as an awakening from lethargy both for the three heroines and the audience. Lastly, the original music of the performance attempted to inject some emotion into a production otherwise rather devoid of feeling.

On the whole, the performance was, artistically, stimulating. Nevertheless, the mise-en-scène imposed an inappropriate formalism on a play that resembles a piece of music: any disruption to the text totally destroys it. The playwright had the three women perform a unique concert of their different—and at the same time so similar—life experiences, something that did not come across in this production. 

*Antonia Tsamouris holds a BA in Theatre Studies (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece) and an MA in Drama and Theatre Studies (Royal Holloway University of London). She holds a PhD and a Post-doctoral thesis from the School of English (Aristotle University). Member of the Greek section of IATC and of the Board of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics (Secretary). She is a Member of the Board of Directors (Secretary for Eastern Europe) at the Edward Albee Society. She has contributed articles and reviews in many magazines and books, both in Greece and abroad.

Copyright © 2024 Antonia Tsamouris
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