Wild Williams is a marvelous antidote for the formulaic.
Wild Williams: Three Outrageous Plays by Tennessee Williams, directed by Davis Robinson. Presented by Beau Jest Moving Theater at The Charlestown Working Theater. Charlestown, MA. June 9-12.
By Ian Thal
Tennessee Williams’ stature as a classic in American theater is based on the poetic naturalism of his early Southern Gothics. However, after he fell out of fashion in the 1960s, he didn’t try to make a comeback by writing imitations of his past glories. Instead, he rejected naturalism, becoming more experimental, more absurdist, his “poetry of the theater” growing ever more stylized. It’s been suggested by some critics that Williams’ work in the latter part of his career is the addled product of a drug user’s stream-of-consciousness. But for all their weirdness, every word, every image, every juxtaposition in these texts reflects the imagination of a very deliberate intelligence.
Beau Jest Moving Theater and its director, Davis Robinson, have long embraced stylized physicality and visuals, and in recent years the company has made it something of a mission to produce these strange, little-known works, many of which seem to resist staging, as if they were written for a theater of the mind. Two of the three included in Wild Williams were completely neglected during Williams’ lifetime. Beau Jest, one of the few companies nervy enough to take up the challenge, premiered them.
The Pronoun I (1975) features Mad (once known as “Fair” and “Good”) Queen May (Robin Javonne Smith), who is both an alternate history version of Queen Elizabeth I and an author avatar (Smith makes use of both stilts and a mask based on Williams). The woman muses in her boudoir that, now she has grown old, her loyal subjects think she has gone crazy and are in revolt. May addresses us as often as she does her youthful concubine, Dominique (Nick Ronan), who lounges sleepily in the throne room, a male odalesque, clad only in an Andy Warhol mask, and an absurdly stuffed pair of leopard-spot patterned briefs.
The set-up bears a striking resemblance to Dario Fo’s Elizabeth: Almost By Chance A Woman, which premiered in 1985. But Williams is more philosophical than the Italian. May — like Elizabeth, like Williams –is a composer of verse, and she bitterly criticizes the narcissistic style of her lover’s poems. She is particularly disgusted by his over-reliance on the pronoun I. But, like all narcissists, Dominique refuses to listen to what he does not want to hear. Perhaps Williams is criticizing the rise of confessional poetry and writing workshops as well as lamenting his fall from literary/popular grace. Meanwhile, the mad queen is aware that her own ego (which is both a “We” and an “I”) is maintained by politics as well as by poetics and libido. Her meditations are interrupted by the appearance of an assassin wearing a Sam Sheppard mask (Michela Micalizio). The rebel seems to be considering if her target is really and truly insane. Smith’s May is a memorable creation: her precise use of gestures — punctuated by moments of stillness — is perfectly crafted to match Williams exploration of a besieged psyche dreaming of its own rescue.
Next, Beau Jest revives their 2009 premiere of The Remarkable Rooming-House of Madame Le Monde (1982) (see Arts Fuse editor-in-chief Bill Marx’s review). Here, eros seems to play a double role: it builds and demolishes the self. Jordan Harrison is cast as Mint, another of William’s late-career avatars – fragile, neglected, but not entirely innocent. The partially paralyzed man moves about his seedy London attic apartment by swinging from hooks in the ceiling; he is waiting for his school chum, Hall (a wonderfully bombastic Larry Coen), to arrive for tea.
The play is cruel and explicit and, had it been written today, could be seen as a satire on pornography in popular culture. A sadomasochistic encounter between Mint and the landlady’s son (Ronan again — this time, it’s his black denim jeans that are absurdly stuffed) is shown via silhouettes behind a sheet. The over-the-top flailing dances on the knife-point between humor and horror in the best tradition of Guignol. Is Mint a pathetic victim of society? Or is he, as the dialogue hints, in control, a creature driven by a voracious appetite for sexual submission and masochism? Hall – while eating Mint’s last biscuit – tells an obscene story about an encounter with a woman of their acquaintance and, though presenting himself as straight, keeps referring to how he used to play with Mint’s obvious lust when they were school boys, teasingly keeping his distance. Lisa Tucker brings plenty of relish to the role of the regal and ruthless working-class monarch of her rooming-house, but it is Harrison’s performance as the enigmatic invalid that supplies the macabre heart to this production.
Aimez-Vous Ionesco? (written in 1975, given its world premiere last year by Beau Jest) is a more meditative piece than the others. The piece’s surrealistic doings are presented via table-top puppetry. Two upper-class British women — in the form of deconstructed table lamps manipulated by Tucker and Smith — reminisce about their younger days, when they would glide along the dance floor. This nostalgia blossoms (or is that curdles?) into full-out farce when the diminutive Mr. Coppit (Harrison and Ronan sharing the role, with Coen doing foley work for Coppit’s very active bladder) arrives and is coaxed into performing a gravity-defying whirligig of a dance.
Costume designer Rafael Jaen dresses the cast in rich textures and eye-catching colors (her gowns for Queen May and Madame Le Monde are particularly noteworthy). Tori Moline gives Williams’ grotesque figures wonderful wigs and makeup. Judy Gailen’s set designs for The Pronoun I and Aimez-Vous Ionesco? coexist beautifully with Deb Puhl and David Howe’s attic in The Remarkable Rooming House. The visual through line in these pieces is a vocabulary of repurposed found objects. Meanwhile, lighting designer Colin Dieck makes the colors and textures pop vividly.
Too many theater companies in Boston have been satisfied with staging sitcoms, television pilots, skits, pseudo-intellectual drivel, and glorified fan-fiction, Beau Jest is one of a small number of local companies who are still making theater – and extraordinary theater at that. Hopefully, Wild Williams will return someday for a longer run.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.