Let's Talk Off Broadway

Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Tennessee Williams

Review | The Notebook of Trigorin by Tennessee Williams | a Free Adaptation of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov | Translated by Ann Dunnigan | Directed by Laura Braza | Attic Theater Company

Whatever Williams may have worked out for himself in this 1981 exercise of adaptation, he didn’t do Chekhov any good, much as he admired the Russian playwright.  Evidently it was important to Williams to write this play it but it's of interest mainly to those with an active concern with theater history  — in that these are two very great playwrights and it could be said anything they did is of interest.

The play – Chekhov pure or filtered through Williams — is a web of unrequited love.  The characters gather on the estate of Sorin, brother of the famous actress Arkadina, who has come to vacation there with her lover Trigorin.  He is a successful and conventional writer, a foil for Konstantin, Arkadina’s son who, with his passionate, youthful belief in a need for “new forms” for literature, is staging his avant-garde play on an improvised outdoor stage.  Konstantin is in love with his actress, Nina who, in short order, falls in love with Trigorin (which might leave Konstantin available for Masha, the Steward’s daughter, who loves him passionately but it won’t happen).

The drama of the powerful first act of The Seagull – and it retains some of its power here — centers around Konstantin’s desire for his mother’s praise, attention and respect, and her laughing dismissal of his play which she finds absurd, with its all talk no action.  “Ah,” she whispers with amused irony to her worldly companion Trigorin, “recitative.”  Chekhov in this episode gave us great talk and action – and we did not need Masha to tell us before hand, as she does in Williams’ adaptation, that Arkadina “will despise the play this evening and make no secret of it.”  Here, as elsewhere, what Chekhov implies, Williams highlights with a magic marker.

Williams pushes hard to cast light on the fascinatingly equivocal relationship Chekhov created between Arkadina and Trigorin.  What is the nature of their bond?  Trigorin chafes at its restraints yet they remain together, his fling with Nina, and the baby produced from it, notwithstanding.  Williams responds to the ambiguities by making Trigorin bisexual, inserting flings with men as well as that with Nina, a characterization that in the context seems forced and somewhat implausible. 

In Chekhov’s play, Dr. Dorm is a loving personality who, as a nature romantic, assigns passionate longings to the power of the nearby lake.  Dorn, in Chekhov, is a ray of hope amidst the bevy of dysfunctional characters.  In keeping with his own tragic vision, Williams’ turns him into a heartless misogynist.  

The earlier part of The Notebook of Trigorin, has more the feel and flavor of Chekhov, and as the play progresses Williams' tragic sensibility and vision of characters living in a world of their own illusions become more dominant.  As in the characters of Trigorin and Dorn, this produces distracting disjunctions.  Williams pulls a rabbit out of the hat at the very end in a grand gesture by Arkadina.  It’s wondrously theatrical, and the one point where, for a moment, I felt Williams has actually improved on Chekhov, until I realized that Arkadina, narcissistic but in touch, would not have done it:  Blanche Dubois of Streetcar Named Desire might well have.

Michael Schantz conveys the confidence, and underlying agitation of Trigorin, the successful author and alluring man.  Jeremy Lawrence is amusing and touching as the estate owner, Sorin, who confronts in old age his failure to achieve his two goals:  to marry and to be a writer. 

Beyond them, the acting is lackluster, one of the casualties of which is that the symbolic power of the seagull Konstantin shoots and presents to Nina as a love gift is lost.  Charise Green as Arkadina throws herself into arguments with effective no holds-barred emotionality but fails to convey the famous actress’s charisma.  She characterizes the narcissistic, dominating woman by screams so grating that I tucked in turtle-wise every time I saw them coming; otherwise she adopts an intimate affect so quiet a lot of her lines couldn’t be heard.   

According to the program, Williams wrote this adaptation to make the “quiet” “delicate” Chekhov more accessible to American audiences.  “Our theatre has to cry out to be heard at all …”   But quiet, delicate Chekhov has done very well in America and around the world, as has Tennessee Williams, both deservedly.  Just not in this hybrid.

The Notebook of Trigorin  plays at The Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca district through May 18th.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

Comments very welcome.  Scroll down, click on “comments,” write in comment box and click on “post.”  Emails are private and never appear with comments.

Review | Something Wild | Three One-Act Plays by Tennessee Williams | Directed by Ken Schatz | Pook’s Hill | Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex | Dorothy Strelsin Theatre

… as good as it gets …

Pook's Hill, a new theatre group, is presenting three one-act plays by Tennessee Williams — 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton, Hello From Bertha, and This Property Is Condemned.   It's hard to imagine a better evening of theater — and you know it from the moment 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton begins …

We're in Mississippi cotton-growing country with two business rivals and a beautiful, big but somewhat childish woman, Flora, one of Williams great characters.  Jake, Flora’s husband – coarse, fat, and pretty brutal — burns down the cotton gin of rival gin owner Silva Vicarro so as to get to gin a profitable 27 wagons full of cotton.  While Jake’s off ginning, Vicarro –sleek, smart — comes by to even the score by seducing Flora.  Unlike crude Jake, Vicarro knows the woman needs “understanding”, and sets to winding in Flora in a seduction every bit as subtle, brilliant and erotically drawn out as that in The Glass Menagerie

Samantha Steinmetz turns in a masterful performance as Flora, aware of what men are “after,” vulnerable, resisting, falling back on wily but transparent flirtation smiles and evasions, remembering what she ought to be doing, worrying that she isn’t doing it: the world of her character is fully expressed in the expressions that cross her face, the modulations of her high strung, nervous voice, the shifts in her body.

Flora is at the play's heart but Brian Gianci as the canny and opportunistic Vicarro and Jack Haley as tough, obtuse Jake are equally just plain perfect in the roles.  And is Vicarro really any less a brute than Jake – or any of the other men Flora’s encountered?  

Hello from Bertha is shorter, more of a sketch than a full play than 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton , but very moving.  Set in a brothel, it focuses on a prostitute, Bertha, not glamorous and “done up” but exhausted and crazed, heartsick over a man she believed in back when they had “good times.” Goldie, the Madam, is ready to throw the now useless girl out which, for Bertha, means a charity ward – the end of the line.  Desperate on all counts, Bertha imagines and re-imagines the letter she’ll write to the man in futile hope — he's married now — that he'll rescue her.   Her hope, fueled by memories and desire, wrestles mightily with despair in her grief stricken soul. 

Andrus Nichols’ passionate performance as Bertha is so unrestrained it’s almost a surprise at the curtain call to see her as a calm, accomplished actress.  Vivienne Leheny’s effective performance emphasizes the tough, business sense of the madam who needs to get the sick girl out of the room but but still conveys a spark of human kindness, a humane reluctance that is, however, to no practical effect.  Imani Jade Powers is gentle as the young prostitute, Lena, to whom Bertha dictates her letter.  Does Lena recognize her own older, tragic self in Bertha?  Williams' tenderness toward his characters bathes these marvelous plays in a breathtaking humanity.

This Property is Condemned  is a play of two children – twelve or thirteen — set near the railroad tracks, each missing school for a different reason. Tom thought the day would be windy and good for flying the kite he's fiddling with.  The young girl, Willie, though, doesn't go to school anymore, but is living on the margins, alone in a house that's been condemned.  Her family’s long gone, her sister – and for Willie a glamorous memory – was a prostitute.  Willie’s getting by – sporadically – the same way.  Both Tom and Willie have dreams.  It doesn’t look like Willie’s will come true.   But – Williams doesn’t leave anyone out – is Tom really on the safe track as he first appears in contrast to Willie?  After all, he's misgauged the weather, playing hookie for nothing on a day with no wind, his kite grounded.   

Tess Frazer is superb as Willie in her frayed, pretty blue tattered finery and skinny bare feet, poignantly still trying hard, testing herself by walking the rails.  David Armanino gives a strong portrait of a young but already opportunistic young man.  This Property Is Condemned was made into a movie in 1966 with Natalie Wood and Robert Redford.  It’s such a good play it whets the appetite to see the movie. 

But most of all I'm looking forward to pook’s hill's next production – in fact it’s hard to wait!

Something Wild  plays at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, on the West Side of Manhattan through October 6th.  For information and tickets, click on live link of title. 

Yvonne Korshak

Comments very welcome.  Scroll down, click on "comments," write in comment box and click on "post."  Emails are private — no emails ever appear with comments.

Comparison Review | The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre | Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte vs Pearl Theatre’s Vieux Carre

… two great productions … (lucky playwright!)

In the Wooster Group’s visceral production of Williams’ Vieux Carre, a writer/narrator allows his memory to transport him to the past, and to a run-down boarding house in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1930’s.  Why this place at this time?  Because it’s the site of his coming of age recognition of his homosexual nature.  But he’s not alone here:  the place is crowded with other tenants who, in their different ways, take part in the drama of his self-recognition.  His memory brings to life their passions and agonies as well as his own.  There are two proud, old southern ladies who scavenge garbage pails to stay alive, the “rapacious”, tubercular old artist coughing into his handkerchief, the young woman from the north whose particular pain we learn of late in the play, her stud man, the landlady, the maid, and the young drifter who becomes the writer’s ticket to a free life.

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Steven Rattazzi, Hubert Point-Du Jour, John Kurzynowski, Maria-Christina Oliveras (below) and McKenna Kerrigan in The Really Big Once.   Photo:  Sue Kessler

Review | The Really Big Once, a Company Created Play About the Original Production of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real | Directed by David Herskovitz, Artistic Director of Target Margin Theater

… about a play …

This is a play about a play and requires some explanation.

In January 2009 Target Margin produced Ten Blocks on Camino Real, a powerful theater experience based on Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, but as reworked by David Herskovitz, who focused on one of the several stories in Williams’ beautiful but sprawling play.  The 2009 production was a remarkable and audacious job of editing a great writer without altering his vision.

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Review | The Day on Which a Man Dies by Tennessee Williams | Directed by David Kaplan | Ross School, East Hampton, Long Island

The Day on Which a Man Dies is visually spectacular.  The scene is set in Japan.  A large, well built though fleshy man, a painter intended to suggest Jackson Pollock, virtually naked except for body paint, crashes around half a stage worth of space — his studio — drinking, smashing bottles, stepping on the glass, bleeding, painting with the blood, falling into the walls, rolling on the abstract expressionist painting in progress on the floor, his body picking up more paint mixed with his own blood and miscellaneous trash as he goes.  He’s been highly successful as an artist but now his dealers are rejecting his new work because it’s totally non-objective (definitely nothing to do with Jackson Pollock on these last two counts).  Where have the figures gone? he asks, downcast on the floor like a child who’s lost … well, let’s say his marbles.

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Review | The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams | Directed by Harris Yulin | Guild Hall, East Hampton, NY

Master of Seduction

No one writes seduction as well as Tennessee Williams.  In his Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, earlier this season, sex is morally and physically deadly for Kilroy — i.e., he has every reason to resist.  And it does take the Gypsy’s daughter awhile — a delicious, suspenseful while — but he succumbs.  In Vieux Carre, another game played out on a small bed, an unattractive man, elderly and sickly, uses skill, experience and patience in a breathtaking seduction of a beautiful young man.  You might think you wouldn’t want to see that — but you do. 

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Review | Vieux Carre by Tennessee Williams | Directed by Austin Pendleton | Pearl Theatre Company

… streetcar named memory …

The setting is a run-down boarding house in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1930’s and you know you’re in good hands from the first moment.  The house is empty now, The Writer comments at the start, remembering when he lived there, but clearly it isn’t — Mrs. Wire, the landlady is on stage even before the play begins.  With that brilliant contradiction, Williams conveys the paradox of memory.

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Review | Ten Blocks On The Camino Real by Tennessee Williams | Directed by David Herskovitz | Target Margin Theater

The original Camino Real, first produced on Broadway under Elia Kazan’s direction in 1953, took up the stories of several individuals grouped around Camino Real, pronounced real as in reallyreal in Target Margin’s brilliant production.  Following an early version of the play, David Herskovitz chooses to focus on one:  Kilroy, a former light-weight boxing champion, now an itinerant American who lands in the plaza of a patently violent Mexican town at fiesta time.  His pesos are stolen fast, nor do we have much hope that he’ll hang on to the mementos of the past before he was a has-been, a champion’s belt around his waist and the golden gloves looped over his shoulders.

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