Aston Magna’s J.S. Bach concert in The Mahaiwe Theatre was a banquet of riches. The music itself ranged from abject woe in Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen to vaudeville hijinks in The Singing Contest of Phoebus and Pan. Where do I begin? The unique singing of Dominque Labelle arrests the senses. You must listen to it. Ulysses Thomas’s rich, aristocratic voice, Jesse Blumberg’s clear, actorly voice, William Hite’s beautiful, beautiful tenor, each spoke eloquently. Above all, the redoubtable Frank Kelley’s complete control of the act of singing, his exaggeration (wildly funny), his movement, and most wonderful of all, the subtle creativity of his timing, brought the house down. He is the complete package.
Tennessee Williams, who was close to forty when The Rose Tattoo opened on Broadway in February 1951, had already enjoyed major success with three plays, and had won a Pulitzer, the first of two, for A Streetcar Named Desire. The Rose Tattoo earned him his first Tony. It rather swept them up, as the scenic designer, Boris Aronson, and the two lead actors, Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach, also won Tonys. This was a big moment for all of them—certainly a milestone in Williams’ career. Yet, when the director of the current production, Trip Cullman, says, in an interview published in the program, that The Rose Tattoo “doesn’t occupy the same place in the canon as The Glass Menagerie, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” we can accept it readily enough. Cullman envisioned his task as revealing its greatness. Indeed, the play hasn’t been revived very often. All the more credit to Mr. Cullman and to Mandy Greenfield, the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Artistic Director, for taking on the challenge and for realizing its greatness with such brilliance—an extremely difficult task, I’d say, first because of Williams’ mercurial, almost indecisive shifting from pathos to comedy and back again, and secondly because of the problems involved in depicting Italian-American characters and life not only on stage, but in fiction and in film.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an obsessive work which makes wildly different demands on its actors. Renata Eastlick as Maggie starts us off which what amounts to a twenty-five to thirty-minute monologue. She did this superbly. It was just overbearing enough. Listening to her was the excellent Loren Dunn who played her husband Brick, and he has scarcely ten lines in the play. Often he is reduced to single syllables.
Art is a hungry master, often demanding no less than all. Chekhov’s Nina, at the end of “The Seagull,” found this to be a drudgery, but there are many of the un-famous out there who render homage to the quest. Few professions require the level of perseverance that a life in the arts demands. Yet those who do persist, many unsung, make rare things every day and enjoy the inestimable privilege of hearing Shakespeare and Mozart come out of their mouths. Being an artist is making the trip to Baudelaire’s island. Once you have heard that performance or two which cannot be forgotten, which showed you what was really in the piece, which made you feel that this was the performance you always knew but hadn’t heard – there is no going back.
Disagreement is a healthy sign in theater, I’ve always thought—the livelier the better—and for that reason I’m inclined to think that Jenny Gersten has had a big success in her first season as Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I don’t believe that critics have agreed about a single one of this summer’s productions. I haven’t done a systematic survey of the reviews, but I have the impression that out-of-town critics, especially the New Yorkers, have leaned towards the positive—often enthusiastically so—while the local reviewers have been less content—in some cases attacking certain productions with anger and derision.
Does it imply too much complacent comfort that I, only a few minutes into WTF’s compelling production of A Streeetcar Named Desire, leaned back and said to myself, “This is it. They’re on track. I’m just going to follow this along.” The first bit of business between the Negro Woman and Eunice, vividly played by Crystal Lucas-Perry and Jennifer Engstrom, was magical, and it stayed that way throughout the entire production. The Williamstown Theatre Festival, under its new Artistic Director, Jenny Gersten, could not have gotten off to a better start: a great classic play in a great production. It was clearly intended to be a revisionist effort, with Sam Rockwell’s entirely un-Brando-like Stanley, and its claustrophobic set, crammed with the banal accoutrements of American life in the late 1940s. But after Omar Sangare’s treatment only a few months ago on the same stage, it seemed conventional, not to the detriment of either production.
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 irresistable 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.
Professor Omar Sangare reimagines Tennessee Williams’ classic American play. A Streetcar Named Desire forces us to confront some of the most difficult themes in our lives; dreams, nightmares, illusions, gender dynamics, betrayal, rape, sexuality, and the ever elusive American Dream. Professor Sangare leads a dynamic ensemble of students and faculty, shining a spotlight on the essence of Williams’ characters through a distinctive and original set of performances.