At the Edinburgh Festival / New York Arts / Theater

Tennessee Williams at 100, Two Early Impressions: Vieux Carré from the Wooster Group and Streetcar at Williams

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From the Wooster Group's Production of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré
From the Wooster Group's Production of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré

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There can be no doubt that Tennessee Williams was the preeminent American playwright of his time—at least for a period which, sadly, covered only eighteen years of his life, beginning with his first great Broadway success, “The Glass Menagerie” in 1944 and ending with his last great Broadway success, “The Night of the Iguana,” in 1962. Between those years Williams wrote a series of profound, deeply-affecting works, in which a heady atmosphere originating from his deep southern origins proved irresistible to New York critics and audiences, not to mention certain Hollywood producers and enough people in-between to bring him wealth and celebrity. After “Night of the Iguana,” it all ended as swiftly as it began. His later productions irritated critics and audiences with their lush language and melodrama, if it made much of an impression on them at all. The reasons are clear enough: there was a marked decline in the quality of his work, brought on by an excess of drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that the early sixties was a time of important changes in society and taste, which favored the cold, jagged edges of, to name one example, Edward Albee, whose career was reaching its peak in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” just at that time. Williams spent the last two decades of a life which extended on to 1983 as a marginal figure in the theatrical world, most directly engaged in struggling to survive his demons.

Some writers might have lapsed entirely into oblivion under such circumstances, but Tennessee Williams’ earlier plays have been successful in revivals, have maintained the solid respect of English and drama teachers, and are revered as American classics today. Williams wrote these plays at a time when the film industry assiduously brought the plays of leading playwrights to the screen, including practitioners as different as Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Kaufman and Hart, Terence Rattigan, and Clifford Odets. There was nothing pious in Hollywood’s embrace of Tennessee Williams. The plays, which were fundamentally realistic and specific in detail and populated with seething woman, fascinating male outsiders, and a dousing of alcoholics, weathered the conversion to celluloid well, and the films performed nicely at the box-office. Elia Kazan, who directed “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Sweet Bird of Youth” on Broadway, was equally active in the studio, and several of the actors who created the original parts, like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, brought their roles to the screen. The mere fact that these films were contemporary with the plays is enough to make them supremely valuable as documents of performance practice, but even when Kazan was in charge, the plays received the full Hollywood treatment, and film technique is so far removed from stage technique, even with the same actor, that most people are less inclined to regard them as authoritative records than simply to enjoy them as compelling movies. I can’t really say to what degree the reputation or the performance tradition of Williams’ classic plays depend on the films. Probably not much, I think.

At 100, Williams seems ripe for a spell of revisionism. New York companies seem to be recognizing this by turning to the forgotten plays of Williams’ later career, either producing them straightforwardly or in innovative ways of their own. On the other hand, I have recently seen a college production, which has attempted a revisionist approach to one of the classics, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” both in production style and in its treatment of Williams’ text. The fact that one of these was successful—brilliantly so, in fact—and the other was not, says nothing about the approaches in general but a lot about the specifics of each production.

To begin with the failure…The Wooster Group has a reputation as a “cutting-edge” company, and their production of “Vieux Carré” was full of the trendy devices—elaborate lighting and sound effects, digital projections, etc.—they are known for, and for those reasons, some critics and audience members may have felt that one couldn’t get away with not praising it. I gather the run was extended in New York, which presumably means a lot of people wanted to see it. At the Lyceum in Edinburgh, where it was performed for the Festival, it received a cool reception from a sparse audience. Quite a few walked out, some early, but most of them late in the production, which suggests that fewer people were shocked than bored. I actually thought of this myself, as my frustration at a performance, which did indeed become excruciatingly boring, turned into anger.

Tennessee Williams began this play early on and continued to pick at it throughout his career. As it appeared in this production, I saw no sign that “Vieux Carré” was a forgotten masterpiece, although certain purple passages stood out and captured my interest. Otherwise the play seemed more like somewhat tangled threads in a string of recalled experiences. A vague feeling of time and place remembered is more powerful than the interaction of the characters or their actions. Like “The Glass Menagerie,” which Williams himself called it a “memory play.” This production, which was all about design, elaborate projections and electronic effects, and shock value, seemed only to bring out the weaknesses of a technique which had once worked for Tennessee Williams, but which failed him in his decline. It’s a cynical strategy common enough today among ambitious directors to take up obscure plays and operas that have no performance tradition (hence no expectations from the audience), and to use them as vehicles to show off their own skills. One has to admire The Wooster Company’s technical resources, but even the most benevolent of critics would have to say that they were trying too hard, and poor Tennessee Williams is left half-buried under all the junk they’ve brought on stage.

I’ve noted before that many contemporary productions have a static quality, which can even overpower strongly plotted story lines. The most impressive example of this in recent memory was Achim Freyer’s LA production of Wagner’s Ring. In Wagner’s tetralogy, things do happen, and one event leads to another. This, in combination with Wagner’s music has proven quite exciting to generations of opera-goers, even beyond the swordplay, the dragon-slaying, murders and the “schmoke und schtink”. Freyer magically transformed this into tedium. Similarly, Williams built a train of events into plays like “Streetcar” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Whatever forward momentum existed in this story of sexual awakening and the beginnings of a creative life was buried under Wooster’s violent video effects and crashing noise. Costumes, mostly exaggerated and grotesque, said most of what we ever learn about the characters: they all made their effect as soon as the actor appeared on stage, and without a sense of discovery the show rapidly grew boring.

Even though the frenetic production was hardly actor-friendly, the cast managed to project fine performances amidst it all, most notably Scott Shepherd in the double roles of Nightingale, the tubercular painter, and Tye McCool, and Kate Valk in hers as Mrs. Wire and Jane Sparks. Elisabeth LeCompte’s direction, although arbitrary and self-indulgent, was showed a visceral awareness of language and character. Although the Wooster production was most certainly an unpromising solution, I’d still be interested in seeing whether a sensitive and less preening director might some day tease an effective show out of what Williams left behind after five performances in 1977.

Williams’ best plays are great for other reasons—character, language, emotion, and atmosphere—but he also built them on the solid framework of the “well-made play,” which tells a story scene by scene and leaves the audience in a different place from where it picked them up…like a streetcar! The WilliamsTheatre production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” performed that sort of transformative transport most powerfully, using student actors, a minimal stage, and drastic cuts, all focused on the essence of Williams’ creation. The concept and its execution were in the hands of Omar Sangare, a professor of theatre at Williams, who is also Founder/Artistic Director of the Dialogue One Solo Theater Festival (2007 | 2008 | 2009) at Williams and of United Solo, the largest festival of solo theater in the world, which takes place every autumn on Forty Second Street. Professor Sangare came to Williams five years ago after building a major reputation in his native Poland as a writer, poet, singer, actor, and director. His one-man play “True Theatre Critic” has won numerous awards in San Francisco, New York, and abroad. Sangare was not yet born when the final curtain fell on Tennessee Williams’ last success. He has worked most of his life in Polish theater, one of the great European traditions, which decades ago parted company with the realistic tradition more familiar in America. Hence, when he began work on this project, he felt quite frustrated with all the detail Williams had put into his story line and characters. It seemed to him that Williams, writing over sixty years ago, had put in a host of incidentals which no longer served the true emotional and psychological intent of the play. Sangare cut the text down to its bare essentials and set it on a stark, almost bare, stage, and threw out theatrical realism entirely.

When the play begins we see none of the gritty urban scene familiar from traditional productions and Elia Kazan’s famous, star-laden film: Blanche appears just to the right of the first row of the orchestra, staring into the stage, eventually observing the menacing figure of a tall, skeletally thin woman crossing the stage in a long black dress and a black lace shawl, carrying flowers. Blanche disappears and a few minutes later arrives on stage to be met by her sister Stella and, later, her husband Stanley, whose poker night is in progress. We realize soon enough that we—and Blanche—are seeing double…or rather, we are seeing double, and Blanche is living double. There are two Stellas and two Stanleys, two Mitches, and two of all the other major parts. Since I’ve seen this doubling in a couple of opera productions recently, the aforementioned Freyer Ring and Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal at Bayreuth, I immediately began to wonder about the metaphysical implications of this simultaneous double casting. (Let’s call it SDC, in case the need should ever arise, in opposition to ADC, or alternative double casting, in which a production has two alternating casts.) Here it most vividly reveals the alienation of Blanche’s consciousness. Instead of appearing as physically individual humans whom one can get to know and approach in a direct way, her sister, brother-in-law and the others appear as their own Doppelgänger, split, elusive, and inconstant. The two actors in some cases looked quite different and behaved differently—one Stanley, for example seeming to be slightly more friendly and accepting than the other. The production was designed with Blanche at the center. We are invited into her persona. If the other characters are distanced from her, they are distanced from us as well.

Doubled Kowalskis in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at WilliamsTheatre. Photo 2011 Damia Stewart.
Doubled Kowalskis in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at WilliamsTheatre. Photo 2011 Damia Stewart.

In what is for me the locus classicus of this kind of doubling, Luis Buñuel’s glorious film, “Cet obscur objet du désir,” in which the object of the hero’s passion is played by a voluptuous Angela Molina and a more, severe, ironic Carole Bouquet, we are also brought into a character’s obsessive consciousness. The differences between the two Conchitas show just how much his attraction is contained within his own desires: no such range of behavior can exist in one sane persion. In fact there was nothing metaphysical behind the doubling at all. Faced with an excess of worthy applicants at the auditions, he decided to double the parts to include as many hopefuls as possible.

In the scene in which Stella and Stanley question Blanche about the family estate, which has been lost, the severe cuts and double casting allow the dialogue to be reduced to rhythmically repeated phrases, seemingly nonsense, although important to the story—which is in fact just how this behavior might seem to a woman who, like Blanche, has been living in her own disassociated world for years. The effect of the doubling becomes intense at the end of the show, when, sitting on her bed, she is assaulted by both Stanleys, who are making incomprehensible, threatening animal noises, but barely touching her.

The actors enter and exit parallel to the proscenium, either forward or backward in the deep stage of the Adams Memorial Theatre. A pair of tracks symbolically cross the stage, but they are also functional, allowing tables, the bed, and a bathtub to enter and exit the visible space. With the reduced dialogue, much relies on stylized movement and dress. Mitch, for example, is characterized by his awkward gait, which throws his buttocks out in a grotesque waddling bulge, but this doesn’t reduce the character to a caricature. On the contrary, the actors who play him are free to express his intellectual and emotional limitations as well as his humanity. The students did fine work, and there were no egregiously weak performances. They showed a convincing grasp of their characters, spoke with consistently clear diction, and occasionally executed some impressive feats of stylized movement. There were no attempts at southern accents.

As for Tennessee Williams’ plot, a simple story which liberates his expression by providing a solid foundation for his psychological insights and linguistic rhapsodies… Blanche arrives, alone, in the beginning, an unwelcome guest, and leaves at the end, in the custody of a doctor and his severe nurse, none other than the deathly woman who manifests herself periodically during the play. In between there is a difficult conversation about property, a doomed attempt to catch a respectable husband, aborted by the gossip about her life as a “schoolteacher” which circulates among the Stanley’s friends, a hideous family dinner, and finally the scene between Stanley and Blanche. There’s also poker, drunkenness, and other male antics, as well as Blanche’s cleansing bath…In this spare treatment Williams’ structure is entirely linear, and we are fascinated and moved by people’s actions as they unfold, all the inevitable result of an attempted change in life and the dangers of secrets within the family and the small, tight community that surrounds it. Sangare’s interpretation made the most of this, as well as of the contrasts of mood and behavior from scene to scene. In this way, Tennessee Williams was not impeded from creating his own stage time, in which he drew us into his characters and their situations, and left us in sorrow at the end, awestruck by the tragedy the sisters have created.

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