Wednesday, March 9, 2011


A frequently ignored facet of Tennessee Williams' work is his expressed desire to push the theatrical envelope. In an essay he wrote preceding his final published edition of The Glass Menagerie, Williams advocated expressionistic ways of telling stories as a means of getting closer to the truth. In the same essay, he condemned the use of photographic likeness onstage - the genuine Frigidaire, running water, etc.
Williams concluded that in order to maintain the stage as a vital storytelling medium, we must abandon the photographic in favor of the expressionistic.
That was sixty years ago. So why are Williams' wishes so often overlooked? Even in productions of his own plays? A key figure I personally blame is legendary stage and film director Elia Kazan.


Kazan brilliantly staged emotionally riveting productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and a number of other Williams plays - but rather than bringing these memory plays and ghost plays to the stage as Williams envisioned, Kazan infused them with his own theatrical background. The new, exciting techniques of The Group Theatre, which Kazan co-founded, were too much to resist, and Williams' plays were rendered straightforward in order to facilitate hard-hitting, psychologically real performances. It is often said that Kazan and Williams' working relationship was that of a bully and a weakling. You can guess who the bully was. Of course, Kazan's productions were of substantial cultural importance and even began the career Marlon Brando, but Williams' plays were truly ahead of their time.


That is why I didn't find The Wooster Group's new version of Vieux Carré, currently playing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, particularly jarring or outrageous. Wooster Group productions aim to effectively integrate technology into theatre as a necessary element - an aim that is more often that not being shoved aside by its larger commercial counterparts. Textually set in New Orleans, director Elizabeth LeCompte's production presents us visually with a sea of black, metal, wires, and televisions. Out of the box, sure, but by no means against Tennessee Williams' intentions.


During the first few minutes of Vieux Carré, I reluctantly gave myself permission to turn off the analytical part of my brain. Visual and auditory stimuli are thrown at you like a baseball shooter turned up to high, and if you attempt to justify each and every image or sound, you will constantly find yourself separated from the action occurring onstage. Once I opened up to the experience, I found myself immersed in the world of the boarding house. My mind filled in the visual gaps with assistance from the mood-inducing visuals on the stage in front of me and the sounds flooding my mind. And that is the sole great success of this production. It establishes a distinct, chilling mood. I was really floored by the sound created by Matt Schloss and Omar Zubair, frequently invoking in my mind the image of a creaking swing on an empty playground late at night.


I consider Tennessee Williams to be the master wordsmith of the American stage. No playwright since Williams has even narrowly approached his ability to merge the poetic and the dramatic into a living, breathing theatre with such effectiveness (Our modern contender is Sarah Ruhl). Wooster's production of Vieux Carré, a lesser known and rather under-appreciated Williams play, was viscerally satisfying and sensorily overwhelming on many levels, but it all too often disregarded the spoken poetry in favor of visual poetry. The video, provided by Andrew Schneider, was occasionally very effective, but always walked the line of distraction. The most transcendent Williams productions allow all elements to be influenced by the language, and the Wooster Group could easily have done that without sacrificing their concept. The often rushed and muddled speech inclines me to believe that this was a conscious production choice.


To play my own devil's advocate, many scholars and even Williams purists will insist that Vieux Carré is not his best play. In Clive Barnes's review of the original production, he even posed the question "Is Vieux Carré a good play?" He answered "Probably not. But it depends on what you mean by good." Vieux Carré gives a firsthand account of a crumbling boarding house from the perspective of a new tenant, referred to only as The Writer. As this play is autobiographical, the Writer, of course, is Williams. He begins to form relationships with the other tenants: a couple in a physically abusive relationship, a older gay man infected with tuberculosis, a comical nurse, a photographer, the crazy landlady, two elderly women, and another gay man with a habit of throwing orgies. The Writer himself is gay as well. It is fascinating to think that in the span of Williams' career, he went from censoring subtle gay subject matter from the film version of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof to an all out gay orgy scene in Vieux Carré. That in itself makes this play quite significant to me. But with all those characters sharing equal billing, it is extremely difficult to give them the texture and detail of a Blanche Dubois, Stanley Kowalski, or Laura Wingfield - the kind of expert artistic attention that we have come to expect from Tennessee Williams.


The performances are actually quite good for what this particular production requires of them. As a rule, I do not read programs prior to viewing a performance. I could care less about what a director or dramaturg has to tell me about a production before I see it. I find that advantageous and more than slightly coercive. Having no knowledge of which actors were playing which roles, I was shocked to discover that Scott Shepherd was both Nightingale (the elderly man infected with tuberculosis) and Tye McCool (the abusive boyfriend). For the first half hour, I thought they were different performers. The surprise was almost as huge as the moment I found out that the man I thought was Don Cheadle in Tropic Thunder was actually Robert Downey Jr.


Joking aside, Shepherd's performance is wondrous, and although bad fortune looms on both characters, they are infused with a sense of whimsy. As The Writer, Ari Fliakos is a pressure cooker. All that pressure escapes during the most profound scene of the play. As the Writer types a conversation occurring between Tye and his girlfriend, The Writer and Tye engage in a sensual dance of words, sound, and imagery. If the entire production could find the sex, longing, and emotional truth of that sequence, it would, without question, be the theatrical event of the year.


The Wooster Group's Version of Vieux Carré, for its many deficits, is still assuredly enlightening and frequently profound. At an intermissionless two hours, it does feel a twitch bit long towards the end, but the excitement of the beginning and the middle make up for the occasional lull. While I still resolutely feel that the language was frequently ignored in favor of spectacle, I commend The Wooster Group for finding the good in a play so often derided, and crafting a production of Vieux Carré that Tennessee Williams would be proud of...or at least intrigued by.


The Wooster Group's Version of Vieux Carré Plays The Baryshnikov Arts Center Through March 13