Theater in the Raw
by Marilyn Lester
Tennessee Williams’ genius was often troubled. He lived a perpetual identity crisis, battling with drugs and alcohol for most of his life. Perhaps as a result, Williams’ plots sometimes deal with repellent themes such as cannibalism (Suddenly, Last Summer) torture (Not About Nightingales) and rape (A Streetcar Named Desire). Two of his late one-acts (both written a year before his death in 1982), A Recluse and His Guest and The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde, are not for the faint of heart. Each play is a dark, absurdist black comedy voicing the motifs that thread through Williams’ body of work—sexual identity, violence, mutilation, death and dominance. Yet, Playhouse Creatures Theater Company is to be congratulated for giving voice to the plays (being presented here as Tennessee Williams 1982), which might otherwise remain no more than works of academic interest.
A Recluse and His Guest is set in “a far northern town in a remote time.” A person of indeterminate gender is eventually discovered to be a woman named Nevrika, who comes to live in the house of the recluse, Ott. Early on we learn that Nevrika has the power to communicate with animals; and, through the course of the play she tames the skittish Ott, who’s like a frightened animal living in a boarded up cage of a house. Yet the effort proves too much for Nevrika and, world-weary, she acts on her fate to always move forward and never back. “All of my travels have lead me, in a wandering way,” she says, leaving Ott’s house, “ to the ice in the harbor. I’ll feel the cold for a while and then—I’ll sleep . . . I’ll not have to wait long for it.”
Director Cosmin Chivu has the honor being the first to interpret A Recluse and His Guest for the stage, and he’s cut to the heart of the fable, exposing themes of trust, truth, conformity, hypocrisy and mortality with clarity. Kate Skinner as Nevrika delivers a powerful, layered performance. She’s a treat to watch navigating the text—written as part folkloric and part comedy-of-manners, Restoration style. As Ott, Ford Austin mines the animalistic side of the recluse, but seems to discover the nuances of Ott’s humanity a little late in the game. The supporting players, the various townspeople of Staad (Jade Ziane and The Baker, Declan Eells as The Tavern Keeper, Beau Allen as a Citizen and the Town Councilor, and Anne Wechsler as a Customer and Golden-Haired Girl) are serviceable in their performances.
The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde is a brutal work that deals with Williams’ lifelong issues concerning sexually predatory women, terrorizing mothers, bigots and capitalists. In “an attic in London, time unknown” the semi-paralyzed Mint—who is entirely dependent on others for sustenance—is tormented by the vicious Le Monde and her sadistic, lunatic son who rapes him for sport. A visit from his school chum, Hall, a wealthy capitalist, underscores the victim status of Mint, who is forced to navigate the attic by a series of hooks hung from the ceiling. Chivu directs with heightened action, highlighting the perverse burlesque, apocalyptic thrust of the play. Mme. Le Monde herself appears only briefly at the end of the play in a pointed climax of devastation and pronouncement. Kate Skinner deliciously makes the most of it. Declan Eells as The Son is frenetic in a Clockwork Orange way, and Jade Ziane as Mint shows a capacity to act as well as react with depth and sensitivity. The main character of Hall, as played by Patrick Darwin Williams, fails to ignite. In trying foremost to master an English accent, which never quite gels, Williams doesn’t succeed in finding the core of the narrative.
Both plays have the added benefit of live music composed and played by Paul Brantley. He’s on stage with a cello for A Recluse and His Guest, and plays a keyboard in The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde. Brantley’s underscoring is subtle and never obtrusive, adding a surprisingly pleasing textural layer to the action. The set, a chaotic jumble of items—as if a natural disaster had rendered a house in chaos—is craftily designed to work for both plays without trumping Williams own stage direction. Angela Wendt’s costumes and John Eckert’s lighting design add solidly to the mood of both plays. Tara Griffo is Stage Manager.
Tennessee Williams 1982. Through March 13 at Walkerspace (46 Walker Street, between Broadway and Church Street), presented by The Playhouse Creatures www.playhousecreatures.org