Friday, May 11, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Medea's Last Dance" (on Williams' In Masks Outrageous and Austere)

medea’s last dance
by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams In Masks Outrageous and Austere / New York City, Culture Project / the performance I saw as a matinee production on Sunday, May 6, 2012

On Sunday, May 6, I attended, with Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee, the premiere of Tennessee Williams’ last play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere—uncompleted at the time of his death—at Bleecker Street’s Culture Project. Despite rather dismissive reviews—David Finkel in The Huffington Post, for example, describing it as a “turgid” and “ludicrous” cauldron of "picked-over Williams obsessions” and Ben Brantley of the New York Times summarizing it as inhabiting  a “tepid, in-between realm” that permits neither “audacious sincerity” or the permission to “go ahead and laugh,” I found the play and production utterly fascinating and far less problematic than almost all the reviewers had determined. Williams himself, while still working on the text (which he continued to do up until is 1983 death), described it as “important,” “extremely funny,” and “bizarre as hell.” It is, in my estimation, all three of those assessments—but then, one might describe almost any Williams’ play in the same way.

    Although the Culture Project’s production suffered a bit from their attempts to encourage the “over-time-top” sensibility of Williams’ text with pixel-projected flat screens, video renditions of telephone conversations with the central character’s advisor and doctor (distorted images and voices of Buck Henry and Austin Pendleton), banks of white, red, and blue lights, and eerie musical interludes by Dan Moses Schreier, this production did conjure up a sense of dreadful foreboding of a world of the edge of the apocalypse, a kind of Key West-like Babylon that might, at any moment, sink (or even be burned up) into the ocean waters so detested by the major figure of the play, Clarissa “Babe” Foxworth (Shirley Knight).

     True, with the exception of Knight and Alison Fraser’s absurdly comic Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (channeling a slightly hysteric version of Bernadette Peters) most of the young actors of the cast have not yet mastered the sort of anti-naturalistic unmelodramatically-driven voices so necessary to properly perform Williams’ lines (a problem as well for the language-driven playwrights such as Mac Wellman, Len Jenkin, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Foreman and numerous other contemporary playwrights). But then, except for Babe and Gorse-Bracken none of them truly matter, their characters serving merely as examples of sexual variations upon which Babe and, occasionally, her spiritual opposite, Gorse-Bracken, serve as commentators.

Despite many critic’s assertions that In Masks Outrageous and Austere was simply a restatement of all of Williams’ previous themes, I’d argue that in this play that, even if Williams has returned to all of the themes of his previous plays, he took them much further, almost laying all his cards on the table so to speak, in the process, creating a far more straight-forward and, yes, honest, statement of his sexual obsessions than he previously had. And for the first time in memory, Williams seems to reference various literary antecedents, including Jean Genet and Harold Pinter—not so much enfolding them into his structure as referencing them, as Bernstein describes it, in flashes.

     There’s no question that behind every Williams male and many of his females is a homosexual, lesbian, or “perverse”—by the general societal standards—sexual being! It is hard to think of the few “normal” individuals (although no such word is truly possible in Williams’ canon, since it is those who believe themselves “normal” who are the most abnormal beings): Stella, perhaps, the gentleman visitor of The Glass Menagerie, maybe. After that, it gets difficult. Even the Big Daddy’s and Big Momma’s of Williams’ world have suffered incomparable torments in their sexual relationships. But in most of Williams’ works, up until his final short and longer plays, these figures were kept somewhat in the shadows, their true sexual identities exposed, certainly, but just so ever slightly blurred that they could escape the deficient attentions of many middle class Americans and even the harsh lights of Hollywood movies. Most viewers certainly comprehended that in the motion picture version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example, Brick’s real problem was his homosexual attraction to his high school football companion Skipper; but people like my parents and their friends, had they even ventured out to that film (they were not adventurers) might have easily believed Burl Ives' assertion that his son’s problem was immaturity, an inability to grow up and out of his idealized friendship with his former “buddy.” They might even have convinced themselves that Blanche was a subject of small-town gossip and was just terribly misunderstood.

     Such white-washing, brain-washing slips of imagination are quite impossible, however, in this last Williams work. There is Babe, full-face to the audience, announcing one by one the sexual peccadilloes of nearly every figure in the cast: from her gay—and in this Williams play, it is “gay,” not “homosexual” behavior that is the proper description of the character’s acts—husband Billy’s (Robert Beitzel) abandonment of her bed for his ship-board dalliances with his  Harvard-bred “secretary,” Jerry (Sam Underwood) to her own lesbian past (which she characterizes, humorously, in the old-fashioned expression of “acts of Bilitis”). She, a pure sensualist, determined to “gratify everything in me as the luna moth dies at dusk,” announces to us that, as the wealthiest woman in the world, she has purchased her current love-interest to fulfill her needs. But he has failed her, just as her endless cocktails of vodka and champagne have failed her, her dying father has failed her, her nerves have failed her, and, now, even her guardians, the nefarious Gideons—a security force made of up of internally-loving gay boys hired by the Kudzu-Clem corporation watching over her wealth—have seemingly failed her. She, in short, is the perfect exemplar of Mick Jagger’s and Keith Richard’s lyrical wail: “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” So too does she announce, in case the audience has turned a blind eye, that her neighbor Mrs. Gorse-Bracken, living in an invisible nearby house, is obviously engaged in a incestuous relationship with her forever-masturbating son, Playboy; that her maid, Peg Foyle (Pamela Shaw) is a slut; and determines that Peg’s current boyfriend, Joey (Christopher Halladay)—whom Peg has met in a local church—is a stud worthy of her attention. Babe, in short, is the Chorus to Williams’ ridiculous Greek-like tragedy, where the masks fall from the character’s faces as quickly as they might attempt to attach them. Despite its lugubrious title, there are, in fact no “outrageous masks” possible given Babe’s revelatory announcements.

     If nothing else—and there is a great deal else to be said about this play—Babe’s drunken pronouncements, which Knight delivers in a kind of stammering delight which, at times, appears to suggest that the overwrought actress has almost forgotten her lines, is like a slap in the face, an outrageous howl of sensual disappointment.  That she, along with her slim-waisted and mentally wasted husband, have been abducted and deposited into this seaside hellhole in a manner similar to the Church of Scientology’s alleged imprisonments of their own doubting adherents, only ratchets up Babe’s vengeful dance of truth-telling, until finally, exhausted, she disappears into the strangely lit up aurora-borealis-like sunset to swim in a sea she has so boisterously admitted she abhors. In her absence, her current objects of disappointment are destroyed, murdered (an inevitability not unlike Gus' death in Pinter's The Dumbwaiter), as she, apparently, is freed to move on, like the capitalistic world she symbolizes, devouring others in her desperate search for love.

     As a comedic-romantic Williams has always secretly equated love with suffocation, desire with greed, the sexual act itself with self-immolation; and in this play, all these tropes become quite visibly apparent. Pumped up on drugs, perhaps satiated beyond his capability to accept any further love, Williams created in Babe a startling rendition of Medea’s dance of death, a song of vengeance for all those who so disappointed this man’s, and every man’s like him, insatiable desires. For Williams’ last lover, the play’s director David Schweizer, the recreation of this text can only have been a painfully poignant reconstruction, one I, at least, felt honored to have experienced.

Los Angeles, May 10, 2012

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