A pair of little-known Tennessee Williams one-act plays, written the year before the playwright's death in 1983, received their premieres this past weekend at New York City's Walkerspace, thanks to The Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company. Directed by Cosmin Chivu, the evening included the world premiere of "A Recluse and His Guest", followed by the New York premiere of "The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde". The first night of the new production was Saturday, February 14th, AKA Valentine's Day! The idea of seeing two rare Tennessee Williams plays on the most romantic night of the year (with your other half, no less...) was too enticing to miss, but indeed ironic as well. Arguably, Williams' stories were more often about unrequited fantastical love than actual emotional fulfillment, and more about the darker undercurrents of human sexuality rather than the actual joys of sex. "A Recluse and His Guest", an adult fairy tale of sorts, can indeed be interpreted as a truly unorthodox "love story", with lines like "I don't get cold when I'm as happy as I am!" (Even though the play takes place in an undetermined time period, Williams apparently couldn't resist the urge to insert a character who makes references to "unnatural acts" while still indulging in them...) However, "The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde", cannot be interpreted as a love story in any way-- except in the minds of those who consider exploitation, non-consensual sadism, and family dysfunction to be some form of "love". More than with most authors, Tennessee Williams' personal life and experiences have been the direct subject matter for his dramas. The audience wonders, then, if the character of Ott the Recluse in the first play was based on Williams' own reclusiveness in his last few years; or if the tragic depiction of Mint, the young gay man in the second play, was reflective of the author's famously ambivalent feelings about his own sexuality.
"A Recluse and His Guest" takes place in an "far northern town" named Staad, in an unspecified "remote time". We meet a horsehide-clad mystery woman (Kate Skinner) who has been wandering through the Midnight Forest. We learn that her name is Nevrika, and she's "a woman who travels by trade", who rubs her leather wrappings with foul-smelling ointment to keep away the wolves. As we later discover, she may be a bit crazy, or a bit gifted, or both: She speaks to animals. Nevrika is searching for food and shelter, and she eventually finds both-- as well as companionship-- with Ott, the recluse of the play's title (Ford Austin). He reluctantly takes her in to live with him. Nevrika progresses from being a maid of sorts to eventually becoming something of a surrogate wife, the zenith of their relationship being when she asks Ott, "Would it offend you if I told you that I'm in love... that I love you?" Gradually, Ott breaks out of his shell, and the two even attend the town's famous Spring Festival together as a couple. However, a not-so-traumatic incident causes Ott to retreat back to his house and therefore back to his reclusive lifestyle... and he then gives his new companion an ultimatum. Does she honor her benefactor's request? The play's conclusion is up for interpretation. After the show, the audience was equally split over just what happens to the main female character.
The dialogue of "A Recluse and His Guest" is adorned by live cello (courtesy of Paul Brantley, who's also the production's Composer) for an engaging effect, and the creative staging makes for some impressive use of the space. The two leads are very charismatic; their performances, like the play itself, appropriately transcend place and time. There are also some audience-pleasing moments of high levity in the form of the Spring Festival scene, complete with singing and dancing. It's extremely corny-- and extremely funny too!
Unlike "A Recluse and His Guest", the setting of "The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde" is fairly clear from the beginning. The accents reveal that this play takes place in Great Britain; the blindingly loud, pastel-colored fashions (a yellow mesh T-shirt, a raspberry-colored men's suit...) make us pretty sure that we are in the 1980's. Unlike the slow establishment of the environment and the characters in "A Recluse and His Guest", the second play kicks off like a shot of adrenaline (with a dirty needle, I might add...). Almost immediately after a jolt of loud rock music and a light show of bright colors (to match the fashions, presumably...), we see one of the four characters being brutally penetrated from behind on a semi-concealed upper level of the stage. Simultaneously, a video screen shows the "Mme." of the play's title engaging in an equally noisy sexual encounter with another character. As you may have guessed by now, the second part of "Tennessee Williams 1982" has a very different feel from the first part. With both sexually explicit scenes and R-rated dialogue, it's almost as if Williams set out to write a play to patently shock his audiences-- as much as audiences could be shocked ten years after "Carnal Knowledge", "Deep Throat", and "Oh! Calcutta" entered pop culture. A better way of putting it would be to say that Williams kept his tendencies to explore the emotional dark alleys of humanity, but he was now doing it for a generation that wouldn't be traumatized by the "F" word or talk about STD's.
Still, the audience was indeed provoked by "The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde", although the play is more disturbing than titillating. One of the reluctant occupants of Madame LeMonde's rooming-house is Mint, a young man who has lost the use of his legs and is forced to move around on stage via hooks hanging from the ceiling and a harness-like apatosaurus on his chest. It's a physically challenging role that Jade Ziane handles amazingly. Hall, a former classmate of Mint's from Scrotum-on-Swansea (Yep...), comes for a visit. Played by a deliciously disobliging Darwin Patrick Williams, Hall goes into a vivid description about a sexual encounter with a woman, sparing no details. He also verbally abuses the disabled Mint for being gay. The vulgar language is a long way from the coded vocabulary of Williams' earlier, more famous works. Still, Williams fans will spot the author's trademark characteristics. Among other elements, there's Williams' verbose dialogue (You'll never hear a more, shall we say, "colorful" description of homosexual tendencies than when Hall brutally taunts Mint.) and the "woe-is-me" depiction of the gay character. It's not all just talk in this rooming-house, however. One character literally drops dead, and he's not the only one. And yes, we do eventually meet the proprietor of this crazy rooming-house, the Titian-haired Madame Le Monde (Kate Skinner again) up close and personal. In eye-popping punkette imperiousness, Skinner's Madame makes a statement without even saying a word, although she does deliver one of the play's standout lines with deadpan eeriness: "The world is accident prone, no use attempting correction. After all, the loss of one fool makes room for another. A super-abundance of them must be somehow avoided..." Even with a brief 45 minute running time, "The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde" packs a wallop. The four characters range from pathetic to downright scary-- but thanks primarily to the acting skills of the cast, they are all truly fascinating to watch on stage.
As said before, Tennessee Williams often permeated aspects of his own life and experiences into his writings. Judging by the sold-out showing of "Tennessee Williams 1982" on its Valentine's Day kickoff, a LOT of people still want to know more about the author's life through his under-seen body of work. Ironically, after seeing this astonishing duo of plays, the iconic author will remain more of an enigma than ever.
"Tennessee Williams 1982" continues through March 13 at Walkerspace Theater, 46 Walker St, NYC. For more information, visit www.PlayhouseCreatures.org.
(Photos by Russ Ross.)