MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Some Rarities from Tennessee

Robin Jones and Sam Read; photo (c) Mike Hipple

Robin Jones and Sam Read; photo (c) Mike Hipple

It happens that two rarely produced plays by Tennessee Williams have been presented this summer in Seattle — and merely by coincidence, as far as I know, by two entirely different groups. They follow on director Kurt Beattie’s staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for ACT’s 50th anniversary season in spring, which emphasized the bigness of the play.

If the set design’s hints of Big Daddy’s generous portion of land — the irretrievable Eden — suggested those larger, mythic themes amid the naturalistic ambience of the Cat production, Orpheus Descending ventures much further out in that direction, employing a diffuse, associative narrative strategy that makes its stretto-like moments of tension all the more melodramatic (on the surface, that is).

The 1957 Orpheus is a bold choice for Intiman Theatre to launch the 2015 Festival — particularly in director Ryan Purcell’s staging at 12th Avenue Arts (closes August 2), which refuses to smooth over but actually underlines how Williams’s stagecraft here flouts conventions and flirts with excess. (After all, the play’s earlier incarnation as Battle of Angels was a famous flop for the playwright back in 1940, before his breakthrough arrived with The Glass Menagerie.)

Purcell focuses his attention sharply on the issues related to the construction of identity in the suffocating small-town Southern atmosphere in which Orpheus plays out: with real payoff when it comes to the miasma of racism that is hardly dated from Williams’s 1950s.

Here, the actors’ gender and race don’t necessarily align with those of the characters they represent — to powerful effect for the pivotal role of Lady Torrance, who is mprisoned in her marriage to the murderous racist Jabe (Max Rosenak, toxic even as an ailing old man). Lady is played by the wonderful Ugandan-born actress Kemiyondo Coutinho with a haunting blend of sass and fatalism.

She and Elise LeBreton (as another town outcast, Carol Cutrere) are especially outstanding in conveying an impression of deeply individual personalities struggling not to be entombed by their surroundings. The cast also works well as an ensemble to project the community’s palpably malignant aura, their gossip generating a never-ending hum of suspicion and resentment.

There’s a fundamental weak link, though, in Charlie Thurston as the invading Orpheus figure who shakes up the town and rekindles Lady’s hopes for liberation. He projects a personality too sensitive and withdrawn to account for the electric effect the Elvis-like Val is seen to have when he arrives. And too much of the substance of Williams’s great arias gets thrown away for an effect here or there: the famous legless bird speech never really takes off.

As an amusing side note, Purcell’s choice to substitute an accordion for the guitar with which Williams arms his hero seems to have baffled some as “illogical” — but it seems fairly clear that this is just another bit of commentary on the way roles are created, the semiotic dissonance further highlighting Williams’s exploration of how identities and patterns get collectively reiterated.

Charlie Thurston as Val Xavier and Kemiyondo Coutinho as Lady; photo by Jeff Carpenter

Charlie Thurston as Val Xavier and Kemiyondo Coutinho as Lady; photo by Jeff Carpenter

Purcell likewise seeks to recalibrate audience perceptions by encouraging movement to new vantage points in the three-quarter seating arrangement (which for the third act include a center platform around which spectators were invited to sit). The conventions of the theatrical experience get further spotlighted just as Williams’s dramaturgy begins to tighten into a more “conventional” plot knot and crisis (which does involve some questionable rewriting of the actual script for the horrific conclusion).

All told, it’s a thought-provoking, often moving experience that works only partially but is mindful of Williams’s experimental audacity — an aspect that often gets short-changed when evaluating this playwright, and that caused no end of misunderstanding from critics and audiences during his life.

Purcell has a smart and sensitive grasp of the richness of Williams, so I’m eager to see what he and his Williams Project do in their next adventure.

Orpheus is at least better known than The Two-Character Play, so of course I jumped at the chance to see the latter as staged by Civic Rep (at the New City theater space until August 1). Like Orpheus, The Two-Character Play stretches across a long span of Williams’s life and was presented in two different versions onstage as he continued to struggle with the material.

The cliché — which has been predictably repeated in a few reviews I’ve seen — would have us believe that poor Tennessee was too boozed up, drugged out, and just too damn depressed in his final decades, that he couldn’t match the earlier masterpieces: the old “there are no second acts” charge (as the frequently misused Fitzgerald phrase goes).

And The Two-Character Play (eventually premiered as such in 1975) is an unfortunate example of an aging, addicted, angst-ridden playwright who’d lost his touch — so goes the conventional wisdom.

In fact, for all its flaws — and flaws seem to be essential to its underlying philosophy of drama — The Two-Character Play actually has links back to the white-hot period of Williams’s creativity in the 1950s and, more importantly, manifests his restless search for new dramatic forms and modes of revelation. Williams himself deemed it his “most beautiful” play after Streetcar.

Much of what people complain about with the “he was too drunk and high” line comes down to the fact that Williams refused to repeat past formulas here, that he wasn’t trying to write another Streetcar (which Civic Rep staged as their inaugural production in January — and which I unfortunately missed). Civic Rep’s approach to The Two-Character Play, directed by L. Zane Jones, honestly tackles the difficulty of a piece of theater that denies the easy entrée of naturalism, of a storyline and characters with whom we can readily identify.

Sister and brother Clare and Felice are also trapped by roles and patterns, as in Orpheus — but now the focus is entirely internalized, a hell of the individual psyche. They are presented as actors who increasingly lose control as they attempt to control the success of their upcoming performance during a tour — a performance of a show titled The Two-Character Play.

Williams crafts a mise en abyme of identity, framing this piece of metatheater as a metatheatrical reflection — which is nicely captured by Thorn Michaels’ ghostly lighting and Angie Harrison’s “behind the curtains” design with its real and imagined entrances and exits. Audience “involvement” is encouraged in this case by Jones’s placement of the spectators on opposite sides (sidewise) of the action, so that reactions from other audience members become an integral part of the staging: yet another type of mirroring. Andy Swan’s sound design evokes hazy memories that jumble uneasily together.

By still further coincidence — or is it synchronicity? — a third group, Seattle Theatre Works, just closed its run of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, as adapted and directed by Daniel Tarker. The aims and world views of both playwrights differ profoundly, though there is a shared flash of Twilight Zone weirdness in the way the situations are set up in both (more so in the Pirandello).

But both deal with characters trapped by roles they are somehow forced to play. The six characters who appear suddenly in Pirandello are condemned to a kind of eternal return, replaying the tragedy that has been imagined for them, but knowing what is to come now each time they replay it. In his intricate reflections on the play and production (well worth reading), the Seattle writer Omar Willey remarks that points to “an unevenness of tone in the production” as to whether the play is ultimately a comedy or a tragedy or “somewhere between.”

A similar issue of tone — how much is camp, how much is “real emotion” — arises with performing The Two-Character Play. Making it even more challenging for the cast of two, there is no countervailing group of people from “normal reality” (Pirandello’s theater company members) as a sort of gauge.

As the two characters, Robin Jones and Sam Read sustain the suspense of gradual revelation of the past trauma that has scarred them, playing out a fugue of despair as relentlessly encroaching as the coming dusk. The sense of an ending — an ending dreaded and yet desired — hovers throughout in Williams’s text of this, his final full-length play.

In her earlier moments, Jones plays amusingly but also provocatively with the “type” of the volatile actress ready to fly off into a rage, while Read is reminiscent of a tormented figure from Edgar Allan Poe. They seek to escape their condition, as Page declares, “There’s no such thing as an inescapable corner with two people in it.” In The Two-Character Play the redeeming Eros of Orpheus has been replaced by the shared tragic connection of a pair of siblings. Or is hell really “les autres”?

“To think of The Two-Character Play as belonging to the tradition of a play-within-a-play would be a mistake,” observes dramaturg Thea Cooper in her lucid program note. “This play is more along the lines of an authorial confession than a demonstration of clever literary architecture. It shares more artistic DNA with Ionesco and Albee than with Shakespeare or Shaw. It may be the least contrived of all of Williams’s work, more about unmasking than masking…. Ultimately, this is a play about questions rather than answers. Like life itself, it is a narrative that one experiences rather than understands, at least in the moment.”

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, Tennessee Williams, theater

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