Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Two-Character Play

goød old neon theatre

 At one point, amidst the ten years of rewrites this play underwent during the twilight of Williams’ life, the piece was released under a different name – Outcry – a title that strikes me as just as apt for this work as its eventual title. To me, this play is an outcry: against logic, against isolation, and against all that keeps us mortals tip-toeing towards the edge of danger but so often afraid to take the plunge.
                                                Director Amy Keating

The Two-Character Play

I read or heard somewhere that cockroaches are immune to radiation and so are destined to be the last organic survivors of the great “Amen" – after some centuries there’s going to be cockroach actors and actresses and cockroach playwrights and Artists’ Management and audiences…

                                                                       Tennessee Williams – The Two-Character Play
There is a kind of abject elegance in the line “the energy of seaweed at low tide” – or something like that – from Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play. The swirling beauty of something dank and delightful, slowly rotting, smelling, moving in and out of the glamourous and the grotesque as we squint and sigh and try to make sense of what we are actually seeing, actually experiencing in life, as we peer into the frequently shallow, metaphoric depths of the deep blue sea. Yikes! Words! And there is plenty more magical metaphor, symbolism, simile – what have you - where that came from in this brilliant, somewhat absurdist ninety minute two hander currently running at The Tarragon Theatre’s Workspace. Brought to audiences by goød old neon theatre, a young company filled with the ecstatic energy of seaweed in a tsunami, the program mandate reflects a refreshing and daring commitment to “investigating moral, political, and social paradoxes by integrating avant-garde aesthetics with traditional storytelling.”

Williams’ two-character play (premiere - 1975) is the perfect vehicle for this impressive meta-theatrical vision. Meta-theatre in this case has the actors trapped within two distinct scenarios – the real and the imagined – as they make their way through family and architectural dysfunction. They in fact feel like many of has have felt countless times when we are ten minutes into a very bad production and wondering if we will ever get out of the theatre. Happily, this is not one of those productions. From start to finish the performers, directed by Amy Keating with an amazing sense of pacing and kinetic frenzy, mixed with manic, at times graceful physical diversity, turn the cluttered stage into a maze of psychological precision sprinkled lightly with psychotic disarray. A trigger warning in the program specifies “gendered violence” and “mental health issues.” It’s a Tennessee Williams’ play, for the love of god! What did we expect? Neil Simon? But for audiences unfamiliar with Williams’ career, especially the less traditional narratives of his later work, the trigger warning might have included, “Don’t expect a southern belle languishing in jilted solitude, misogynist mania, and despairing memories.” As beautiful as his early masterpieces were, the later plays, critically panned during the premiere productions, are the ones that allowed Williams to soar above the gratuitous mainstream and into the glorious margins.
Matt Pilpiak & Nicole Wilson in The Two-Character Play

Late in life Williams began to create work more akin to Beckett - under the influence of theatre practitioners such as Erwin Piscator whose techniques encouraged a socio-political examination of life, espousing a form of epic theatre that discards naturalism in order to reveal the heightened effects of the frequently battered worlds we inhabit. The Two-Character Play (aka as Outcry) is a tragi-comic maniacal romp through the lives of what appear to be touring players bemoaning poorly heated theatres, low wages, and the ways in which the props that inhabit our lives (e.g. – telephones, pistols, doorways, lamps) can become obsessive objects that simultaneously distance us from and bring us closer to surrounding environs both human and horrid, peaceful and panicked.

Matt Pilpiak as Felice is a flawless study in melancholy and intense drive. With a robust fragility and a face that expresses a range of emotion in a single phrase, he gives a crumbling character the mixture of strength and deterioration needed for a man trying to simultaneously love, and cope with, a life and a career that appear to be driving him insane. Nicole Wilson as Clare matches Pilpiak’s performance with a perfect sense of familial rapport as she takes the archetypal southern belle and turns her inside out, giving her both dignity and disgrace at the turn of a phrase, the flick of a wrist, the sweeping race across a stage filled with props and furniture placed within deceptively organized disarray – beautifully conceived by designer Lindsay Jagger Junkin.

Both performers seamlessly move in and out of southern accents at appropriate moments, reminding us that we are watching a play, and that this particular play, until recently, has been a much neglected masterpiece from one of the twentieth centuries great artists as he ventured out of the collective comfort zone of naturalism and into the harsh exciting light of experimentation and enthralling illusion….Well, that was a mouthful.

Don’t miss this brilliant production of a play recently mounted with performers such as Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif, giving somewhat absurdist meta-theatre a chance in  an absurd world inundated by – to paraphrase Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire - too much realism and not enough magic.
The Two-Character Play runs at Tarragon Theatre Workspace until February 28th

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