Friday, December 10, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Bow Down and Be Dim"

by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams Vieux Carré, conceived and performed by The Wooster Group / the performance I saw was on Sunday, December 5, 2010 at Redcat (The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in The Walt Disney Concert Hall Complex, Los Angeles

Although Tennessee Williams began writing his play Vieux Carré in 1938, the play did appear on Broadway until 1977, and then lasted only 5 performances. New York Times critic Clive Barnes summarized: " It is a play of blatant melodrama and crepuscular atmosphere," but admitted that that might be said of any Williams play. "You leave the theater with the impression of having been told a secret," he concluded.

The Wooster Group's recontructed performance of this unknown work leaves one, strangely enough, with the same feeling, that Williams is revealing something here that no matter how you reimagine its structure remains potent. If his autobiographically-tinted The Glass Menagerie only hints at personal realities, the next step of his life—Williams emergence into the dark world of New Orleans' French Quarter—is revealed with an almost horrific honesty that can only make one, at times, want to look away.

If "Rise and Shine" was the daily aspiration in that earlier play (at least for Amanda Wingfield), The Writer of Vieux Carré seems to live a life in the shadow of his mother's proclamation, in a world ruled by a declaration to "Bow Dow and Be Dim." From the beginning of the play, all the characters, except The Writer (Ari Fliakos) have learned how to crawl. The metal-like cages of the Wooster production which signify the rooms of Mrs. Wire's (Kate Valk) boarding house for the destitute are strewn with clothing and personal belongings as if the inhabitants spent most of their lives on the floor or in bed. In fact, they do precisely that.

Mrs. Wire has recently taken to sleeping in the hall in order to keep a better eye on her immoral and deceitful tenants, shouting out for the occasional help of the mad travesty of a nurse, "Nursie" (Kanez Schaal), who seems simultaneously permanently servile and yet about to revolt. The Writer's next door neighbor, the artist Nightingale (the excellent Scott Shepherd), goes about, in this version, with a large rubber dildo sprouting through the zipper of his pants. This gay Priapus is forever on the make, and knows just how to relieve the sufferings of the lonely new boy just landed in this dump. Yet, of all the characters, the consumptive artist is the most loving and caring, at times almost replacing the resilient southern mother The Writer has left. Certainly, like Amanda Wingfield, he has the most comic lines.

In what I now perceive as a brilliant directorial decision, Elizabeth LeCompte cast two of the characters as their polar opposites. Kate Valk, the dreadful Mrs. Wire, also plays another of The Writer's acquaintances in this zoo of lost lives, Jane Sparks, a seemingly normal young woman who has somehow lost her way, becoming trapped in a life given over to sex. The object of her desire is a seedy hick who works at the local strip bar, Tye McCool (also Scott Shepherd), who is anything but "cool," but like Nightingale goes about with a hard-on most of time and sees himself as a kind of heterosexual Priapus who won't "let a fag blow him for less than a $100." Both Nightingale and The Writer desire him, despite their recognition that he is a burned-out heroin addict. In the lonely world in which they exist, nearly anyone will do in a pinch.

Although both Nightingale and McCool are sexually consumed, however, neither can be said to be, like the Roman God they bow to, generative. And their lovemaking ends, generally, in disgust.

Indeed it is a disgusting world in which they live. McCool excuses his most recent heroin episode on his knowledge that his boss has turned his dogs upon the bar's "Champagne girl," the lead stripper, when she threatened to leave him. The dogs literally "ate" her, he reports—reminding us somewhat of the dreadful fate of Sebastian Venerable in Suddenly Last Summer. Indeed all of the figures of this play are, in one way or another, being eaten up, consumed. Jane, it turns out, has a serious blood disease and will soon die. By play's end Nightingale is so sick, symbolized the loss of his erect penis, that he is taken away to a public institution to die. McCool, we recognize, is so caught up in a world of crime and drugs that it can't be long before that he too "will go to Spain," as the underworld figures describe their colleague's sudden disappearance.

Beginning his tenure as a true innocent, The Writer has quickly gotten involved with Mrs. Wire's attempts to open a restaurant in her room, and is forced to testify that she is innocent (even though he has seen her do it) in trying to burn the photographer living below her with hot water. After an operation for a cataract of the eye, he can, symbolically speaking, no longer see the truth. By the second act of this work The Writer has become one with the destroyed beings who surround him, attempting to attack the drunek McCool and raping Nightingale.

For a few moments it seems like The Writer may escape this nightmarish society, as he meets a young man, Sky, who, about to head West for a new life, asks him to join in the voyage. But we soon discover that it is impossible. Just as Nightingale and McCool have been steoroetyped by their erect members, so is The Writer tied to his headphones, keyboard, and video screen as he attempts to tell his story as quickly as it is being told to him, or, as he tells the story to its characters as quickly as they might enact it. There is little difference; either way, we see that he is clearly frozen in space; Sky does not show up to save him from himself. At play's end, The Writer is strangely at peace with the silence surrounding the disappearance of the others with whom he has shared his life or created.

In short, The Writer, it appears, is now as corrupt and uncaring as the people he met when he first arrived in Vieux Carré, and in the process has been swept up into the evil world of his own imagination. Certainly the man we see now welcoming the quietude is the polar opposite of the boy at the beginning of the play crying out of loneliness in his room.

Los Angeles, December 10, 2010


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