Monday, February 21, 2011

The Unkindness of Strangers: The Wooster Group Does Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams
Vieux Carré is generally considered to be one of Tennessee Williams’ late works, since it was originally produced (and had a very short run) in 1977.  But the play has so much in common with the The Glass Menagerie (1944) that it could very well be a sequel to the more famous work.  Indeed, recent Williams scholarship has identified a working script dating to 1939, when the writer was living at the very street address where Vieux Carré takes place.

As in The Glass Menagerie, the central character is a writer—here referred to as “The Writer,” but most certainly he could be called “Tom.”  Imagine that Tom has fled his home in St. Louis and has found himself ensconced, at least temporarily, in a rundown boarding house on Rue Toulouse in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  It is here, among the poor, physically ill, and mentally and emotionally precarious denizens of the household, that Tom finds both his sexual identity and his voice as a writer.  

Now, you don’t go to a theatrical production by The Wooster Group expecting to see a straightforward interpretation of a play.  The SoHo-based company, with its roots in experimental, avant-garde performance art, loves to push the envelope in an effort to make the audience think about the content while feeling, perhaps, a tad uncomfortable with its deconstructed and reconstructed works.

The current effort, officially titled The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, leaves the company’s reputation intact.  In this case, however, it is difficult to say which provides the most discomfort—the production itself or the physical space where the audience is seated in the Jerome Robbins’ Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th Street.  Surely someone unfamiliar with the human anatomy, or possibly with a large investment in a chiropractic treatment center, came up with the idea of steeply banked rows of thinly upholstered straight-backed pull-down benches, where the audience is crammed, two to a bench—and, in the case of Vieux Carré, at least—for two solid intermissionless hours yet.  Not good.

As for the Wooster Group, it has taken a relatively delicate piece of writing—which, unlike the leaden The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore from 1963 (currently on view at the Laura Pels Theatre), contains some of that lovely, ethereal language that Williams at his best was so very good at—and beats it to a pulp.

In order to connect with the play at all, we are forced to deal with annoying and distracting affections such as pointless video images and characters strutting around in leather thongs and protruding erect prosthetic phalluses that are about as sexually interesting as the character of the tubercular street artist who repeatedly attempts to seduce The Writer while coughing into an oversized bloody handkerchief.  What a turn-on!

It is only during those times when the actors are actually allowed to perform the play that we get any sense of Williams’ voice emerging from the noise, and the characters come into focus through generally good performances by the company. I especially liked Kate Valk in her dual roles of Jane Sparks (a down-on-her-luck character who bears a resemblance to Blanche DuBois) and Mrs. Wire, the brash and crazy landlady and would-be surrogate mother to The Writer, who, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, has had quite enough of mothers, thank you.

Taken as a whole, The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré is rather an ordeal to sit through.  I’m not sorry I did sit through it as I had not previously seen a production of the play,  but I would love to see a straightforward production, possibly in rep with The Glass Menagerie.  If you are similarly motivated, then by all means head on out to the Baryshikov Arts Center--but you might want to bring your own cushion or stand in the back.

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