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Facing the Stage
NoDef's theatre critic reviews weekend performances of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and the premiere of three one-act plays by Tennessee Williams.
Pirandello was not alone. The construction of identity was, is and always will be a going concern in the theatre. The medium is always in search of an author whether that voice comes from director, designer, actor, or playwright. Gaining control of the voice of a play is the great wrestling match of the craft. Since Sophocles confronted Oedipus with awful truths, rewrites, rehearsals and reconsiderations are all part of the struggle that theatre artists have engaged in order to discover what lies at the heart of their task. Theatrical creation is the act of questioning a text about what it is and where it wants to go. Once a possibility is hit upon, collaborators aim to prove Hamlet’s dilemma of identity and present those findings on a stage. Whether those creations should be or not be is for the audience to decide.
That’s the game for two shows that opened this weekend. Both ventures decide to take on treacherous and heady material. Both have patches of struggle and triumph in finding identity for their productions in multitudinous ways. The success and failures in these ventures are as divergent as the theatrical worlds they inhabit. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” over at The Backyard Ballroom on St. Claude Ave., and the professional premiere of three one-act plays by Tennessee Williams at Canal Place's Southern Repetory Theatre are thrilling opportunities for theatergoers across the city to see both infuriating and challenging examinations of identity on the stage.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s gorgeous monstrosity of a musical, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” was presented in 1998 as a seedy sideshow of a performance. It is a deliberate train wreck that is usually presented as a destination with a dirty secret. The play tells the story of Hedwig, an embittered German, transgendered rocker. Hedwig’s split-at-the-seams road show is in hot pursuit of the worldwide tour of her former lover and, now nemesis, rock idol Tommy Gnosis. Believing she created Gnosis, Hedwig refuses to be ignored and is trying to position herself as a lurking shadow/scandal underneath the bigger tour’s reality. She brings an arsenal of 1970s Glitter Rock fused with Malcolm McClaren-like bullocks. Joined by her lover Yitzhak and the band “The Angry Inch”, Hedwig is attempting a performance, literally, with a vengeance. She has just over half an hour to pull it off.
As produced at The Backyard Ballroom, Skin Horse Theatre’s production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is something else. I mean that in every possible way. The cramped, alternative venue is the perfect space for the young company’s ballsy, ill-executed offering. Skin Horse creates a garish mishmash of speaker feedback, flashing strobes and inchoate rage. This isn't the company's first show on the New Orleans scene, but this production feels like a mission statement and courageous announcement of local presence. The fact that it does not work be damned. It is the rare occasion in this town where failure does not diminish the attempt. It is a high-octane misfire of a show, and I am going to recommend it with deep reservations.
This “Hedwig” comes undone, because the collaborators are not in control of the play’s narrative in either technical or emotional terms. It is a work I know, but I found myself losing long threads of story and lyrics with which I am familiar. “Hedwig” is a tightrope of an evening that must look like a rock show by way of Weimar. Ultimately, and subversively, that appearance should prove only a disguise for the bitterly funny, broken romance underneath. In this production, the ferocity of tone, look of the show, and more than one of the songs are often spot on, but they become the only concern and end up eating the truth of Hedwig’s reality. Unlike a rock concert, the words of a play must be understood and the ideas must be clear or all is lost in the Dionysian wave. By the time this “Hedwig” is over, we feel washed up on shore, disoriented, and unconnected from all that has transpired. It has thrilling moments, but it also produced vertiginous unpleasantness.
For a piece with only five microphones and few technical demands, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is simply too much for director Anna Henschel to handle. It is her work that bears the brunt of this production’s shortcomings. She seems so focused on capturing the grungy, disaffected energy of the venue that she forgets it is her charge to tell the story. Underneath the enraged provocation and exhibitionism is a series of small, poignant destinations leading the way to one devastating terminus. Those destinations need to be seen clearly from above, and come off as surprising only in the moment. They should not be part of an incoherent mix. If performers and designers are in charge of the energy, it is the director who needs to stay with the story of a character without country or love who speaks for Others everywhere. That story is not captured, and the final defiance only has any uplift to speak of because of Trask’s potent songs.
Hedwig should only appear chaotic and impromptu. It is the director’s job to make sure, especially in a confined space like The Backyard Ballroom, that even the most incidental movement is honed and set. This production blocks sightlines, allows actors to wander without purpose, and takes crucial moments onto the floor and into invisibility. Company and cast member Nat Kusinitz’s shadow puppet solution to the exposition is partially lost because of audience configuration. This collaboration between director and designer is a lovely hybrid of Bauhaus poster and punk T-shirt. It does a terrific job complementing the song “The Origin of Love” specifically, and it needs to be visible. Instead, the overhead projector is too far left and the images too low. This succeeds in spurring frustration rather than theatrical delight. A touch of Apollo is needed for all the Dionysian energy. There is a sense Henschel wanted to join the fun onstage so badly that she left her story in the house.A trope involving an upstage door neatly summarizes the issues with the staging. Throughout the play, Hedwig returns to a backstage door that opens into the unseen concert of the rock icon that jilted him. It is meant to suggest a larger world that is not available to liminal figures like the title character. The door being upstage is forgivable; the lack of justified blocking to clear the view is not. Hedwig’s crosses are awkward, her pain at being denied access is not visible, and therefore, the story is not advanced. Energetic songs like “The Angry Inch” and defiant sexuality cover one or two sloppy moments, but the missteps accumulate over the course of the production until the structure collapses. All we are left with are anecdotal fragments of a shattered identity. Hedwig is less confused about her place in the world than the audience is with its location in the plot.
However, it is not an individual failure. The performers shoulder their own responsibility in the mess. With almost an hour and a half of songs and material to cover, the spectacular grotesque that is the title character does not need to linger at any moment for effect. The simple sight of Hedwig draped in an American flag cape racing through the aisle produces the requisite carnival atmosphere. The story is fantastical, the songs are alternatively raucous and heartbreaking, Henschel’s lights feel just like a rock event, and the three piece band providing the music, Whom Do You Work For, is up to the task. It is all there; it does not need the help. But as the featured performer, Evan Spigelman feels there is more strutting and fretting to be done. It comes with the sacrifice of control. He swallows words, eats the microphone, and seems sometimes lost outside the songs. Spigelman’s Hedwig takes the stage with less of an emotional agenda than an urge to shock. The objective of settling a grudge, a jilted lover putting on the show of her life, is often lost. There is a great deal of posturing and pouting, but more often than not, it seemed for the sake of form over content. There are potent moments like “Wicked Little Town,” where Spigelman lowers the microphone to chin height and tells a story to its affecting conclusion. However, there are others such as “Tear Me Down,” where the truth is lost with Mick Jagger lips and incomprehensible shouts. Spigelman fails to connect the dots; it is flashes of Hedwig as opposed to being Hedwig. It is a parlor trick opposed to a botched glam monster.
His emotional and musical backup, Kusinitz acquits himself a little better. When allowed to stand still and simply react, both his puppy dog droop and his ice-cold stares were quite affecting. There is an accidental lesson in his performance. When given to actual tasks handling the poor theatre technical elements and adjusting mic stands, Kusinitz’s Yitzhak appears both deeply concerned with showcasing his lover’s talents and utterly aggravated to be whipping boy for his dominant partner. It is the missions in between staying still and moving with a purpose where the wheels come off. I can be a fan of multiple points of interests on a stage, and Hedwig has moments that call for it. However, blocking that upstages a fellow actor with a slow, attention-stealing movement towards the drums does not accomplish anything other than dissipating focus. As a performer, Kusinitz has still not mastered the ability to justify unmotivated blocking, and because of this, the movement lacks purpose outside of obvious practicality. As the guide through Mitchell’s text, the company seemed more about the creation of emotional effect rather than a search for the clarity necessary for emotional investment.
But I am going to recommend it. My stagecraft annoyance gave way on more than one occasion to the absolute exuberance of all involved. The Skin Horses love this show, and that passion is palpable. Furthermore, if you know the material, it will be a richer experience, since you will not have to fight through their narrative shortcomings to enjoy it. Finally, there is something to be said for cheering on the defiant ones. You want to be in their corner to keep encouraging them off the canvas and back into the fight. This “Hedwig’s” wrongheadedness comes from its convictions, not a smug conceit. Its missteps are the product of taking chances, not tentative fears. By the evening’s end, for a few fleeting moments, I saw Spigelman transformed into a Spider from Mars. It was worth the price of admission. The material is still a few years away from their reach, but The Skin Horses, and I mean all of them, stretched to the point of breaking in the piece. I did not feel any sense of apology or reluctance in their execution, something that too often haunts more seasoned performers in this town. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” makes choices, and she lives them. For that alone, we should be grateful.
Tennessee Williams’ One-Acts
On his visit to New Orleans last year, playwright Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) remarked that in order to be a great dramatist you had to possess the courage to reveal embarrassing truths about yourself through your art. As New Orleans finishes celebrating Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday, it needs to be said that few American playwrights demonstrated his ferocious courage. Humiliation is his standard approach. Heroines are consistently trampled, dignity is stripped and raging codependency prevents closure of any sort. It is why his work is so emotionally violent: at least an unspeakable act of cruelty puts an end to the screeching reminders of lives unfulfilled.
By the time “The Glass Menagerie”, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Orpheus Descending” premiered, Williams had mercilessly subjected his writing to the same intolerable cruelties that his characters suffered. If playwriting is the act of murdering all you love, Williams’ work is a killing field. He sends Laura into unrecoverable despair, ships Blanche off to a mental institution and drags Val from the stage for a lynching. His displeasure in these acts is discernable, but his desire for poetic force is greater. But desire is not courage, and those actions are neither automatic nor reflexive. Courage is a breakthrough, not a state of being. And Williams’ courage developed through consistent examination and constant rewriting. His development is a value lesson for young writers looking for the will of Medea as they create their worlds.
Therefore, it is a cause for celebration that Southern Repertory Theatre in association with The Tennessee Williams’ Festival is presenting the world premiere of three of the American dramatists’ one-acts. They give glimpse into Williams as a dramatist filled with trepidation and show him still unable to reveal embarrassing truths. It is a poetic world where freedom is achieved, love is discovered, and closure is found. In short, it is Williams before he becomes Tennessee. Under the direction of Aimée Hayes, the night begins with an oddity, ends the first act with a miscalculation and then features a lovely ghosting of a greater play for the entirety of its second act. Both the trio of plays and their productions continually fascinate, wildly miss the mark at times, and possess more than a hint of Williams’ poetic reach and deep love of human beings. Like the light that bathes the end of production, they feel like the nostalgia of finding the photos of a long gone friend inside of a box in the attic. It makes for both a pause and a sigh.
The lights arise not so much on a play as with fragment. Featuring Sean Glazebrook and Lara Grice, “Every Twenty Minutes” is a slice-of-life where a philandering, cynical husband and his disappointed dame of a wife engage in a fleeting moment of small talk and bickering. A series of recriminations ensues before a half-hearted attempt at sexual provocation falls on an uninterested party. Hayes picks up nicely on the script’s musical references to give the affair a hipster rhythm. Complete with a pair of stylish white shoes, Laura Sirkin-Brown’s costumes suggest a postmodern world of the cool and detached from three different decades. I started to wonder if there could be bit more sexual frustration to charge the shrill acting, but before I could make that determination, it was over. If you snap to the music that comes out the iPod boom box downright, you will miss it. It is that short: a napkin sketch under a cocktail.
The evening’s misfire comes in its second offering, “The Magic Tower”. After choreographer Jeffrey Gunshol’s sharp and groovy transition out of “Every Twenty Minutes”, Hayes reveals designer Ashley Sehorn’s realization of an artist’s loft that includes all the accoutrements of bohemian living. Charting the disintegration of a marriage between an aging actress and her young painter husband, the piece moves rapidly from a blissful idealistic love to bitter disappointment as the realities of actual living slam into visions of genteel artistic existence. It is a Williams world complete with big dreamers, relationships fueled by passion over sense and more than a touch of gothic psychosexuality. Expressionistic in its approach, it is crisply blocked, clear in its objectives, and paints more than one lovely picture. “The Magic Tower” is the evening’s best use of space, and its most complete production. At times, it is also good fun.
It is also utterly unfair to its source. The expressionism of which I spoke is used to send the material up rather find the young playwright’s passion. Written in 1934, it has all the failings of a fledging dramatist's work. The arc of character has a breakneck celerity beyond credulity, and the author takes the characters as seriously as they do themselves. But this is not reason to show the work no mercy. The actors play the one-act to the hilt and then beyond. Pauses are held, gestures are struck and melodrama is embraced with fervor. I realize a relationship between a painter and a diva collapsing in just over thirty minutes is a stretch. I also am aware that setting it in a boarding house with a lurking spinster landlord, a couple of hack actors, and a nosy kid neighbor thrown in for good measure has more than a touch of farce. But those are structural problems to solve not to avoid with stylistic choices.
This is not a matter of playing the stakes disproportionately, because the characters’ own dialogue suggests doing just that. But disproportion need not always be farcical. The issue is that we are being told, rather than shown, how ridiculous it all is. With its over-annunciations and its reliance on behavioral bits, the production’s approach seems afraid of looking as silly as the characters that inhabit “The Magic Tower”. It is as if they did not trust the material enough to do it in a more organic style befitting Williams’ work. That might have given it heart. “The Magic Tower” deserved a hearing on its own terms. And if it was not worth doing on those terms, maybe it should not have been done at all.
That being said, the failure of “The Magic Tower” is a result of conception rather than execution. The actors are part of a well-organized plan that they enact with great flair. Lara Grice is sufficiently neurotic as the actress, and Alex Lemonier is full of pretentious angst and mania as her painter-dance partner. They work well together, creating a delusional reality, albeit a one-dimensional one. But the concept prevents tapping into their doomed love. All wiseacre charm as a travelling comedian, Chris Marroy successfully walks the tightrope between Hayes’ mixture of realism and commedia. His performance hints at what could have been. He seems fighting for the play that exists inside.
A bit too cartoonish as the hunchbacked landlord, Cecile Monteyne’s returns with a perky ingénue that comes close to matching Marroy’s stylistic juggling. She manages to fill the form with genuine emotion. The enthusiasm of Sarah Faust as the child neighbor introduces a lovely beat shift to the proceedings. With just a touch of brat, she prevents her performance from descending into the cutesy. While there is a sense of trying too hard, the five performers are not only having fun with each other but also sharing it with the audience. It is the one mitigating factor that puts the breaks on what very easily could have turned to the approach into an act of cruelty.
The evening’s dramaturgical astonishment is its second half. “The Pretty Trap” is “The Glass Menagerie” as a romantic comedy, a charming piece of wistfulness. Amanda is still looking to secure a husband for her daughter Laura, but the goal is now within reach and her motive an actual concern for her child. Her son, Tom, becomes almost a nonexistent secondary character in the romantic schemes of his mother. Neither he nor Williams has stepped out of the fantasy to tell the audience the truth. It is a lovely lie, an act of wish fulfillment, from the playwright. He is yet unwilling to see stunted sisters, face disappointed mothers, or realize that it is his job to tell the truth. It is one last glimpse at what he wanted before taking the knife to the lies that were.
Hayes does the script as is. There is no comment, and it's all the more fascinating because of it. It must be said, her urge to frame it as an old photo sometimes leads to flat staging, losing more than one actor’s face, and the occasional traffic jam at the dinner table. However, much of the look and all of the performances are right. Joan Long’s lighting design gives “The Pretty Trap” a warm internal glow that is particularly effective once the lights go out in the apartment. Coupled with the sounds of a scratchy record, it sets up the enchanting final moment of connection, romance and fulfillment between Marroy’s likable gentleman caller and Lucy Faust’s dreamy but salvageable Laura. You could feel the dust on the photo book.
A balance of vulnerability and defiance, Faust uses Marroy’s earnest and affecting monologue of his future plans to create a tiny arc of character. She moves from resistance to infatuation. You could see her falling for him. She and Hayes solve the problem of accelerated emotional transformation from which the “The Magic Tower” ran. Of course, Rebecca Taliancich is terrific as Amanda. If she is not, there is no show. A self-described witch, Amanda is more to the good than the wicked in “The Pretty Trap’s” incarnation. She is the perfect age for the role, because we see the giggling debutante still alive in the matron. She cajoles, charms, bullies and bats her eyelashes to tactically achieve her goals. She manipulates the world around her until it is all settled in a candlelit parlor. The danger of the role is resorting to broad strokes instead of focusing on the indefatigable humanity beneath. She does not, and it makes for a delight.
I have saved mention of Sean Glazebrook for last, because I think his performance speaks to what is compelling about the alternative universe of “The Pretty Trap.” He is so good as Tom that he almost makes you forget the character is simply there to bring The Gentleman Caller home. Listening and reacting to his mother’s frenzy, he allows the audience access into the proceedings. He cannot believe what is coming to pass, and neither can we. The unicorn is left whole and redemptive love is possible. Darkness lies ahead but not tonight. Watching Glazebrook at the dinner table, I thought of Williams smiling at what might have been. Because of this production, we get to see.
Renard Boissiere, Linzi Falk, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Dead Huey, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via
Michael Weber, B.A.
B. E. Mintz