Written by Tennessee Williams
Adapted by the Wooster Group
Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte
During much of Tennessee Williams
's autobiographic play Vieux Carré
, the nameless young writer sits in his boarding house room struggling to put pen to paper. The floors creak, the walls are paper thin, and intruding neighbors frequently emerge from the dark. In the Wooster Group's aggressively stylized and digitally augmented new version
(at the Baryshnikov Arts Center
through March 13) there are no walls, just a few floating doors on tracks, the floors are rolling risers, there's plenty of light from the half-dozen video screens, some characters interrupt via webcam, and The Writer (Ari Fliakos) bangs away on a computer keyboard. Or at least he does eventually; much of the play—which flopped on Broadway when it premiered in 1977 but was actually begun in 1939 when Williams lived in the house where it's set, in New Orleans's French Quarter—charts The Writer's increasing comfort with his sexuality through interactions with other similarly destitute residents of 722 Toulouse Street. His creativity, in other words, depends largely on sexual liberation.
Williams's characters are heart-wrenching even (or especially) at their worst, and could be divided fairly neatly into two categories: those who've accepted their misfortunes, and those struggling to reverse them. Fliakos's Writer pretends to be one of the former then slowly gathers momentum. At times the nugget of the production seems to be that sexual health fuels productivity, which you'd get from reading the text in any case, but happily there's something far more interesting at work. As often happens, the shy Williams stand-in is regularly overshadowed by his neighbors. Here their presences are especially formidable due to incredible two-role performances by Kate Valk and Scott Shepherd. She portrays both the lunatic old landlord Mrs. Wire and Jane, the young woman living across the hall with an attractive, abusive man she barely knows. Shepherd plays the latter, a laconic strip club bouncer named Tye, and Nightingale, the ill older man who gives the Writer a hand. A minor character simply called Photographer (Daniel Pettrow) who throws debaucherous parties in the basement is on stage all evening, filming the action relayed to monitors throughout the theater. Kaneza Schaal's Ryan Trecartin
-ish ditzy Geisha appears rarely, but memorably.
Director Elizabeth LeCompte ups the play's pervasive sexual energy, at times realistically (like the Writer and Nightingale's first encounter) and elsewhere in elaborately choreographed distortions, as in a half-danced, half-fought near-threesome between the Writer, Jane and Tye, or a repeated trick where the Writer fantasizes about a blowjob and, through super-imposed live video, we see what he imagines on screen. Complaints about the play often point to its flattening, series-of-vignettes narrative, but by dissolving boundaries and blurring characters and scenes, the Wooster Group constructs something like a three act arch of sex, turning into violence, resulting in death. Moments of campy humor (and a hilarious cartoon) texture the technologically tweaked drama. It's only as the pace quickens, the ensemble's energy becomes more frantic, and tensions within each character's plot reach their breaking points, that a beautiful slippage takes place, a kind of Seinfeldian inversion
. Digital video and hypertext loop back into each other, the Writer starts typing the play we're watching much like Williams began this story as it happened to him, and this wonderfully re-imagined Vieux Carré
comes full circle.
(Photo credit: Paula Court)