The Wooster Group's Version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carre
a pathology of naturalism
I knew an aging director once, who had a reputation for beautiful experimental renderings of fine drama. He barely made it into the mainstream and lived out his life on the margins, only flirting with dominant cultural forms when he was allowed in. I would see him, from time to time, at a local bathhouse. He would take the somewhat grim, banal surroundings of the little cubicles assigned to those of us interested in casual sex and habitual promiscuity, and throw a colourful translucent scarf over a light bulb, an upholstered pillow from his couch behind his head, and there he would sit, with his door open, reading a book as he awaited the varied delights of a dimly lit evening among like minded men. Like Tennessee Williams, he knew how to decorate the reality of life and make it magical, for a moment. He knew how to adorn the text of his own existence with something decidedly more glamourous than overt realism.
"Is Vieux Carre a good play?" …. "Probably not. But it depends what you mean by good. It is a play of blatant melodrama and crepuscular atmosphere — poetically speaking, and he never tried anything less, Mr. Williams always writes of violence at twilight. Its qualities are those of texture rather than form. It is a series of vignettes, based on fact, falsified by art, transformed into short stories, and woven into a play . . . If we always expect the unexpected to happen—and as playgoers we do—nothing happens. And the play has no structures other than the interweaving of caricatured characters. Yet it has a haunting nature — you leave the theater with the impression of having been told a secret. Not necessarily a truth, but a secret . . . It is unquestionably, the murmurings of genius, not a major statement. Yet beneath those murmurings, through the meanderings, is an authentic voice of the 20th-century theater. It is slight but not negligible. Which, considering so many dramas, is a pleasant reversal.”
Clive Barnes - The New York Times - 1977
Like a long beautiful run-on sentence, Tennessee William’s Vieux Carré is a brilliant modern masterpiece that has been misunderstood for decades. The current World Stage production of The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the playwright’s production notes to The Glass Menagerie, written during a period when Williams was beginning the early drafts of Vieux Carré, were derailed by directors with more traditional productions in mind, paving the way for a series of conventional twentieth century versions of his plays that focused upon the ways in which a kind of southern poetic writing can lend itself well to the dominant representational form of the time - naturalism. Naturalism has been subject to the greatest cultural phobias and pathologies of the periods that it has embraced over the past century, thus the absence of a wealth of plays that deal with marginalized subjects and a proliferation of scripts that regurgitate dominant heteronormative scenarios.
In his introduction to The Glass Menagerie, included in the World Stage program, Williams imagined a theatre that forsakes “realistic conventions” in order “to resume vitality as a part of our culture.” The Wooster Group does precisely this through the use of a variety of acting styles, body microphones that give the voices a subtly powerful cinematic quality, as well as non-naturalistic sets that move seamlessly in and out of a series of tableaus that connect a cast of characters living in an unseemly rooming house in the French Quarter.
What Clive Barnes sidestepped in his review in the late seventies was the notion that a good play need not adhere to any specific pattern regarding the organization of scenes that comprise an entire script. A good play can depend upon the kindness and sensitivity of strangers - a group of gifted actors guided by an insightful director who sees the script as something more than a depiction of life as we view it through the deceptively biased lens of everyday experience. Williams chose a more expressionistic style for Vieux Carré that connected his characters in almost surreal and startling ways in order to highlight the ways in which the real and the imagined can become so integrated within a single psyche that they begin to blur and shape our lived experiences.
Scott Shepherd’s performance brilliantly exemplifies this integration of normative and fantastical characterization as he creates the roles of Nightingale and Tye McCool. He never falters as he holds the listeners attention from start to finish, delivering sharply dissimilar characters that have been seamlessly integrated into the production, producing an almost magical presence for these two vary distinct and engaging personas. Ari Flakos as the writer possesses a soft, cool, seductive tone to his voice as he embraces his character as a kind of objective observer, as well as an over-wrought artist caught within the drama at hand. Kate Valk as Jane Sparks, and Mrs. Wire, alongside Kaneza Schaal’s superb supporting role of Nursie, brilliantly insert the element of nuanced caricature so crucial to the playwright's vision.
Williams was able to see, as he experienced a variety of chaotic class settings during his childhood, and into maturity, the ways in which personality can move seamlessly into parody - a caricature of what we often perceive as real, when in fact the parody is every bit as real as the so-called normative presence. The French Quarter remains to this day an environment where this kind of character shifting can appear in high relief through the glare of a scorching southern sun, and the intense humidity of the Mississippi River Delta, not to mention the ongoing threat of Katrina-like ‘acts of god’ that re-invent the human and geographic landscape drastically, and at a moments notice.
Andrew Schneider’s complex videos and Jennifer Tipton’s evocative lighting, combined with a brilliant soundscape by Matt Schloss and Omar Zubair, under the impeccable direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, render the overall production a truly exciting exploration of the proverbial human condition. LeCompte has sighted the influence of playwright Charles Ludlum. The dildos, the melodramatic poses, the fright wigs and the overt sexuality Ludlum was a master of, all conspire to make the production a gorgeous, at times gaudy rendering of this semi-autobiographical journey through the early career of a great American playwright.
The Wooster version is a sight to behold, and not to be missed, and may remind some of us of the ways in which our lives have been consistently jammed into the corners of culture by infamous critics, among others, and perceived as “crepuscular,” “melodramatic,” and “falsified by art,” when in fact the eternal play of art and life has never been a falsification by any stretch of the collective aesthetic imagination. It has been, as Williams so aptly put it “an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.”
Clive Barnes may have been somewhat shortsighted regarding the form and structure of Vieux Carré. But he was right when he suggested that it may not be a "good" play. It is a brilliant play, and the Wooster Group Version is a brilliant production that should set the standard for any truly innovative future incarnations of William’s great dramas.
running at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront
Centre, as part of World Stage, until March 31st