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.

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.

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.

This profound presentation of Williams’ play breaks the bounds of conventional theater as the Wooster Group regularly does, which here means letting us experience directly inner life, uncovering the compellingly hard-to-take.  The messy business of existence passes across this cluttered stage, the complexity heightened by voices heard with and without microphone, direct and recorded, and the visual variety of projected still and moving, whole and fractured, images.  Isn’t that how we experience existence?  Never have the Wooster Group’s technically fed disjunctions been more powerful.  Still, this fractured, gutsy experience of existence is only one part of the story.  We also try to give it all a shape.

In 2009 the Pearl Theatre presented an excellent production of Vieux Carre — so good it almost seemed definitive, as in what more, or what else could one find in it? (for description and review click here).  Now we have this fine production by the Wooster Group.  What’s the difference?  The Wooster Group’s production strips away surface to get at truth, revealing messy, anarchic, bloody, disordered insides, both physical and psychological.  It’s an analog of experience itself.  Calmer and less in-your-face, the production by the Pearl Theatre was a meditation on experience:  it took you on a journey of deepening understanding and, at the end, brought you back to the surface of a still intact existence.  By the end of the Wooster Group’s performance, existence is still pretty ripped up (and the stage is a total mess!).

There was nothing “safe” in the sense of timid or equivocating about the Pearl Theatre’s production:  it was strong and true to Williams.  Both productions, for example, stage the astonishing scene in which the sick, old, ugly artist seduces the beautiful young writer, while disgustingly coughing blood into his tired handkerchief.  But the handkerchief is bloodier — and grown to banner-size — as the Wooster Group plays it.  In the Pearl’s play, sickness and death compete on equal terms with elegiac allure.  There’s even a softening touch of romance.  As the Wooster Group does it, lust and death are equally gross, and forget about romance.  The Pearl’s seducer was normal looking for a sick old man, so one could sense in him something of the beautiful, hope filled young man he’d once been.  The Wooster Group’s old man wears a priapic false phallus like a satyr in an ancient comedy;  the scene is played so repulsively people laugh.

The Wooster Group assigns its actors multiple rolls, obviously and purposefully to short circuit any tendency towards sentimental attachment for the characters.  The great Kate Valk, for instance, a central performer in all Wooster Group productions, plays the tough landlady and the frail, high class girl from the north (though with too much of a southern accent a la Blanche Dubois, I thought).  In the slow unfolding of the Pearl Theatre’s Vieux Carre, the audience had the benefits of consistency of presentation, and of evolving time that nourish involvement and empathy with the characters.

The unflinching approach of the Wooster Group brings you face to face with deconstructed truth.  Pearl’s swung well into brutal reality but left you with an intact vision.  That’s a truth, too, because it’s what, in fact, we do with raw violence of experience.

The Wooster Group’s Vieux Carre plays at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th Street in NYC through March 13.

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.

The Really Big Once, a new play, described as company created but surely with essential shaping by Herskovitz, dramatizes the interactions between Tennessee Williams and director Elia Kazan that went into the production of Camino Real on Broadway in 1953 where it was a critical and commercial flop.

In preparation for their Ten Blocks on Camino Real, Herskovitz (and others?) spent three years “mining collections of papers by and about these two giants and their collaboration on Camino” (program note).  The product was Target Margin’s brilliant production of Ten Blocks on Camino Real.

But after all that mining there was so much left over. Dealing with original documents, the intimate connection with these intensely creative men, the excitement of discovery was a powerful experience.  Faithful as Ten Blocks on Camino Real was to Williams’ vision, it didn’t express all that Herskovitz & Co. had learned.  The Really Big Once was created to tell the rest. As Herskovitz writes in the program note, “This play is a personal story masquerading as a documentary drama.”

So with that explanation, what about the play?

If it was really masquerading as a “documentary drama,” one would expect to be able to keep track of what was happening, but The Really Big Once is confusing. Not poetic, not experimental, but confusing.  The story line is fractured which can be effective if it has a purpose but here is just baffling. The five actors switch parts, seemingly at random, so it’s sometimes not clear, for instance, which is Williams and which is Kazan, and by the time you figure it out they’ve switched again.

The Really Big Once asks a question: Why wasn’t Kazan more effective in guiding Camino Real toward the structure it needed? Kazan says he knew what was “wrong” with the play but didn’t follow-through.Why not? Williams, whose own opinion was that Camino Real was “beautiful but flawed,” made a serious effort to work with Kazan.

The play’s answer involves the effect on Kazan’s life in the wake of his recent testimony, in 1952, before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he’d “named names” of people who’d earlier been associated with the Communist Party. Others had refused to testify as a matter of conscience but not Kazan. Many thought Kazan had betrayed others in order to save his own career, and he became something of a pariah in theatrical circles. The Really Big Once suggests that the turmoil surrounding these events weakened his directorial force.

Isolated because of his testimony, the play suggests, he used actors from the Actors Studio to try to “stay friends” even though those actors were inappropriate for the poetry of Camino Real (my guess is that Eli Wallach, who starred as Kilroy, would be up to the role). It’s also suggested that guilt inhibited Kazan’s creative strength, which counters all that’s known from Kazan’s own statements and indicated by his direction of On the Waterfront a year later. It’s interesting to consider these ideas that directly oppose the usual interpretation of Kazan and his testimony, and if the documents Herkovitz and Target Margin studied can back up their ideas, they should write an article about it.

But as a play, The Really Big Once lacks plausible characters and coherence. Hijinks aside, it seems that its immensely talented creators were too close to the material and too intensely engaged in it to find its drama.

The Really Big Once plays at the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator Theater through May 8th.


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.

In Ed Harris’ great film, Pollock, it’s the violence of breakthrough originality, here of breaking down.

In contrast to The Man’s furious, slobbering and drunken-maudlin abandon, the denizen of the bedroom on the other side of the stage is his pert mistress who wears a Jackie Kennedy suit and an Elizabeth Taylor wig, well put together — read in control.  The play is their mutually enraging psychological and sex play.  They rail:  The Woman (her character name in the play), I’m only your whore, I have no legal standing.  The Man:  You’re an emasculating, parasitic blood sucker.  The straw that breaks the camel’s back, he reads notes from her casual lovers, and kills himself by downing Lysol at the very moment that she, sitting in a cafe on The Ginza, realizes she loves him and, flooded with a yearning to fill her womb and leap from barrenness to joy by bearing his child, rushes home to make love … too late.

A serene Japanese counterpoint is provided by the Oriental man and woman Stagehands.  Dressed in black, they tactfully move props and bring drinks, the male going beyond Oriental theater tradition by commenting on the action like the Stage Manager in Our Town.  Mainly he (for Yukio Mishima see below) contrasts the Japanese way of suicide with the Western one we’re clearly about to witness — the Japanese way seems better for a reason that eluded me.

A great delineator of character, Tennessee Williams has written a play in which the characters are stereotypes, and gives us no reasons to help understand their personalities or relationships.  Why, for instance, did The Man ever fall for The Woman who sarcastically mocks art?  She went for him for the money, that makes sense, but why, as she discovers after twelve years, does she love this slob while berating him for using spray paint?  Why does she order — significantly emphasized — very strong tea as if craving a fast fix and then ignore it when it comes?  The play depends for effect on excesses instead of insights.  Still, the excesses in themselves are somehow refreshing.

The producers of The Day on Which a Man Dies note, “In 1960 Williams wrote a fierce fantasia on the great painter’s [Jackson Pollock’s] death — and kept the text for himself.  Williams’ ‘secret script’ is dedicated to the Japanese visionary writer Yukio Mishima.”  Perhaps he kept the script secret because he knew it wasn’t among his good plays.

A talented, dedicated crew has created as fine a production of The Day on Which a Man Dies as the author could have wished (if he wished for a production!).  The visual conception is stunning and heightens the emotional content — canvases splashed in red and waiting in white, sheets torn, fabric ripped.  Jeff Christian goes all-out as the frantic painter and Jennie Moreau is amusing and ironic as the The Woman — it’s amazing how putting on an Elizabeth Taylor wig makes her look like Elizabeth Taylor and taking it off makes her look like … Jennie Moreau.

There’s much to learn from productions of lesser plays by major playwrights — among which, not everything a fine author writes is great.  It rounds out our view.  We can observe Williams’ interest in Japanese literature and experimentation with oriental theater devices.  It helps us follow his themes of male-female antagonisms, fertility and barrenness, mental deterioration, his hatred of the puritanical, all of which run through this play.  A full production may bring to light overlooked excellences — though I didn’t find them here. Of course one can read an unproduced play, and theatrical producer Ken Davenport in his blog of August 5 reminds us of the new perspectives that can come through reading scripts.  But then the production with full theatrical arsenal helps the theater going public come closer to a play’s reality, and calls attention to the little known.  Thanks to all who had a hand in this!  I wish I could attend the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival this September to see the good — and maybe the not-so-good.

The Day on Which a Man Dies, first produced by Chicago’s National Pastime Theater, plays at the Ross School in East Hampton, NY August 7 – 9 and during the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival September 24 – 27, 2009.  The paintings are by Megan Tracy.

Other recent reviews of plays by Tennessee Williams:

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.

Act I of The Glass Menagerie sets up an intriguing psychological situation but it’s not until the great seduction scene of Act II that, in this production, the play comes alive.

Tom, who’s both a character and narrator in this play, wants to be a writer and yearns for adventure but is stuck in a shoe factory supporting his tyrannical mother, Amanda, and lame and reclusive sister, Laura, who finds emotional refuge in her collection of small, glass animals that break easily, like her.  Amanda, an erstwhile Southern belle, chatty and flirtatious, tries to make her intensely shy daughter into a creature like herself, while holding too tight a rein on her son through emotional blackmail and incestuous flirtatiousness — at one point, as my friend noted, in response to one of her intimate onslaughts, Tom covers his groin with his cap.  The traps that lock this family are economic and psychological but Williams is most interested in the psychological.  As Sartre concluded in his play No Exit, of the very same year, 1944, “Hell is other people.”

Frantic to find Laura a suitor, Amanda pushes Tom to invite for diner a man from the factory, Jim who, it turns out, Laura had been attracted to in high school, only intensifying Laura’s pathological shyness.  Jim takes it on himself to draw Laura out of her shell … instead of a bed, Williams here gets them sitting together on the floor, in candlelight, while the others are in the kitchen.  Outstandingly handsome in this production (though not in the script) and sure of himself in a full-of-himself sort of way, Jim succeeds in opening her to romance and a kiss in a tender and cruel seduction.  It turns out he’s engaged.  For him, it was a combination kindness and ego-trip.  For Laura, it’s the ultimate loss.

The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ first great theatrical success, has strong reference to his own life (see also Vieux Carre).  Like the narrator-son in The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ true name was Tom, and it’s no stretch to see in the psychologically fragile and abandoned Laura a reflection of his mentally ill sister Rose whom Williams felt he had abandoned (Jim’s nickname for Laura is “Blue Roses” from his play on words of the pleurosis she suffered.)

The play’s psychological themes speak strongly to the powerful stream of Freudian thought in much twentieth-century literature, particular in the earlier years when everyone was writing about psychological arrest, a la Kafka, and when it was widely believed, for instance, that homosexuality was caused by absent fathers and over-protective and seductive — Amanda-like — mothers.  But the play remains fresh because Williams’ characters are vivid and fully developed, their passions deep, and their interactions intense, believable and inevitable.

The Glass Menagerie, with Amy Irving as Amanda, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Tom, Louisa Krause as Laura and John Behlmann as Jim, plays at Guild Hall in East Hampton through July 26.

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.

The Writer, turning his memories into a play, brings us with him to the time this house was crowded with the intensely individualized characters and their desires, jam packed with the ongoing torments of their situations and the occasional raptures open to them through their partnership in the human spirit.

It’s interesting that The Writer is both the central character in the play and also the most passive.  Though young and beautiful, he doesn’t seduce but is seduced, by an elderly and not appealing painter — the man has serious lung disease — who in a sparkling moment of truth defines himself as “rapacious.”  Appetite never dies — the painter reminded me of Goya’s black painting of “Old Man and Old Woman Eating Soup,” skeletons scraping their bowls to the end.  All the other tenants in Mrs. Wire’s rooming house are ravenous, in one way or another.  The handsome Tye is sexually passionate, stimulating Jane’s unquenchable desire.  Two once higher class old ladies are famished to the point of scrounging in garbage cans, while Mrs. Wire cooks gumbo.

Even toward the end when The Writer has the chance to move to a new freedom, a cross-country car trip to the West, he’s invited along but it’s the other guy’s plan.  The Writer’s action is mainly to observe and understand things better.  This gives the play a soft center.

Vieux Carre was written in 1978 near the end of Williams’ career but written about writing and about coming to terms with sexuality, it has the feel of a coming of age play.  He often draws upon memories of his life and family in his plays but this is the most directly autobiographical — Mrs. Wire’s has the same address as his French Quarter boarding house — 722 Toulouse.  It even has a structural laxity one might expect of a youthful playwright with more to learn.  Perhaps, after having produced a great body of work, Williams felt he’d earned the right to just give himself over to autobiography — at last.  Never mind:  the production is flawless, the acting superb, the language goes directly to the heart and the characters are real, vivid, and remain in the imagination.

Vieux Carre is at the Pearl Theater in the East Village, St Mark’s Place, through June 14th.

P.S. Two of the best plays I’ve seen this year are Vieux Carre, and Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, reviewed here.  And more to come — I’m looking forward to Glass Menagerie at Guild House in East Hampton, L.I., this summer (reviewed — click here). Also reviewed here, Williams’ The Day on Which a Man Dies in East Hampton, August 2009.

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.

But will he hold on to his life?

He has a life-threatening enlarged heart which has ruled out boxing and sex, forcing him to abandon a promising career and, out of compassion (poetically, large heart), to leave a wife he loves so as not to disappoint or burden her.  For Kilroy, sexual abstinence is not only physically wise but spiritually essential — it’s the link of loyalty to the woman he loves.  But his arrival coincides with the festal night when the Gypsy’s daughter becomes a virgin once again, and picks her man.  This time it’s Kilroy.  He resists, and ultimately succumbs to her seduction, while her mother relieves him of the last ten bucks from sale of his mementos.  The ending, where the realms of reality and yearning share the stage, worlds apart but back to back, is sublime.

The production has a satisfying pop-comic-nostalgic visual unity, something like Red Grooms would cast over a Mexican plaza.  The steady golden light casts an appealing glow over the set, suggestive rather than constructed, and the wonderful actors, Satya Bhabha as Kilroy, Purva Bedi as Esmeralda and others, Curt Hostetter as Gutman and others, McKenna Kerrigan as Marguerite Gautier and others, Raphael Nash Thompson as Jacques Casanova and others, with Dara Seitzman as the Guitar player weaving her way Siren-like among the characters and through the scenes.  I found myself looking for an indication of the heroic sculpture that would be in the middle of a Mexican plaza.  The costumes and props are witty and touching:  the helmet made of vegetable steamer baskets wrought into the instantly recognizable shape of Don Quixote‘s deserves a place in the costume hall of fame.

I never saw the full Camino Real but I doubt it could be more powerful than this one that David Herskovitz has honed down to a single focus, all the more likely since the original production seemed at the time confusing and disparate.  Target Margin comes off two years of immersion in classical works; that experience, and Herskovitz’ deep knowledge of the classics, must lie behind the remarkable unifying thrust brought to this production of a modern playwright.  Aristotle’s unities of action, time and place are at work here on Camino Real — the plaza rather than the full ten blocks.  Herskovitz has shaped the play in a way that if anything intensifies the lyrical poetry of Tennessee Williams’ vision of human frailty.  This production is a rare theatrical opportunity.

Target Margin’s Ten Blocks on the Camino Real plays at the Ohio Theater, 66 Wooster Street in SoHo, January 14 through January 31.

Nearby restaurant favorite: Via dei Mille, 357 West Broadway

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