Madcap! Zany! Screwball comedy! Those words don't necessarily scream Virginia Woolf, but Long Beach Opera's new production of "Freshwater," the author's only play, certainly runs riot with these elements. Directed by Isabel Milenski, the 35-minute work, written in 1923, was intended as both a casual entertainment and an experiment in dialogue.
Based on events in the life of the 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was Woolf's great-aunt, and her circle of friends -- including poet Alfred Lord Tennyson; painter George Fredric Watts; his wife, actress Ellen Terry; and Julia Duckworth, Woolf's mother and one of Cameron's favorite subjects -- the play will receive a rare production at the Getty Center this weekend. Its sendup of these forerunners of the Bloomsbury group will be followed by performances of chamber music and songs by Victorian composer Rebecca Clarke, the whole package complementing a Cameron exhibit now on view at the Getty.
Woolf's monkeyshines are "a way of condensing time and events in these people's lives," Milenski explains. "But what the play is mostly about is these artists in their art-making zones. Woolf paints them in a colorful, whimsical way. She has Watts focus on finishing a toe in his painting, for example, and he's ecstatic because he finally gets the toe on the canvas."
That toe caused quite a stir during a recent rehearsal. A magisterial Tom Fitzpatrick as Watts, declaring his picture finished and brandishing his brush with a mad flourish, prompted the eternally subversive performance artist-actor John Fleck, as Tennyson, to haughtily rebuke him. Stretching out Woolf's words as if they were molasses, the poet intoned: "The toe is not the most important part of the human body."
As Cameron, Laurie O'Brien, whose halo of strawberry-blond hair frames an aristocratic face, also keeps the drawing room rollicking. She and husband Charles (Tony Abatemarco) are preparing to return to India from their abode on the Isle of Wight's Freshwater Bay -- once their "coffins arrive" to be taken with them. Meanwhile, staging iconographic portraits, the photographer commands her subjects to "mount the chair" or don a pair of freshly killed "turkey wings," which, in reality, are white, fluffy and seraphim-worthy, suggestive of the imagery in Cameron's work.
The concept of this production stems not only from director Milenski but also from her father, Michael Milenski. Long Beach Opera's founder and its director for the last 25 years, he is hanging up his hat after producing Woolf's little-known jewel of a play and its accompanying music.
"We wanted to make an evening that incorporated 'Freshwater,' which was performed at a Bloomsbury party in 1935, into a larger entertainment," says Milenski. "Because we're an opera company, we looked for a British woman composer, a Woolf contemporary.
"We discovered Rebecca Clarke, who met Woolf once. She wrote a viola sonata that Gina Warnick performs. We also looked into her songs, which hold their own with great songwriters like Schubert. Donna Balson, from Australia, is making her U.S. debut with five songs."
Milenski also enlisted the services of his daughter, who directed Janacek's "Jenufa" for Long Beach Opera in 2002 and Milhaud's "Trois Operas Minutes" this year for the company.
The younger Milenski says the new production, designed by New York-based Marsha Ginsberg, holds a number of surprises.
"We don't know what Julia's salon looked like," she says, "but this is a bizarre drawing room with things popping out of walls. Julia's darkroom was a converted hen house. We're bringing that into the salon too."
Feathers fly -- and the rehearsing actors seemed to be having a blast. Fleck, who currently can be seen on HBO's "Carnivale" (he plays Lizard Man), recently returned from New York and a sold-out run of his latest one-man show. When asked how he felt playing an English poet laureate, he quipped, "Alfred was rather pompous and full of himself, so it's not much of a stretch for me."
On a decidedly more academic note, Julian Cox, the Getty's associate curator of photography, says the playlet adds to the luster of the Cameron exhibition.
"Woolf grew up with these pictures and with the folklore of Julia's extraordinary activity as a photographer and personality," says Cox. "That's what the play's about. It's a lighthearted, irreverent look at this member of her family."
Although the result is not something most readers would associate with the suicidal writer portrayed by Nicole Kidman in "The Hours," Milenski says, "that's why it's interesting."
Where: Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood
When: Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.
Info: (310) 440-7300