things about stuff
by Dave DePino
It takes a creative genius to bring together, in one piece of writing, a large cast of desperate, tormented, lonely characters. It takes someone like Tennessee Williams. He can always make these throbbing, sultry, anguished creatures define their souls. Granted his style now has melodrama tingeing its fringes, but his work, as always, is relevant and worthy of your complete attention.
Vieux Carre was a complete surprise ... like finding a new continent in the twenty-first century. This little-known and valid piece of William's work is presented to Los Angeles by The Open Fist Theatre Company who specializes in obscure, risky and tantalizing material. This fine production compliments Williams 'style' in every way beginning with set design by Tom Brophy with multilevels of playing areas in a broken down boarding house in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1938, to Bill Lackemacher's lighting design which paints and frames masterpieces, to Leslie A. Kaplan's apropos costumes. Williams seems to plagiarize many of his own popular works here, but if you are going to steal, steal from the best.
The story takes place in a boarding house at number 722 Toulouse Street. It is run by Mrs. Wire (the spunky Dalene Young), an intrusive woman who knows too much about her tenants. The house itself is nearly breathing with the drama it shelters. The guest registry is filled with misfits of society the rough, the meek, the scared, the innocent and the fragile ... the predator and the prey.
There is a twenty-three year old writer, possibly fashioned after Williams in his youth. This young man (nicely played as innocent, but not naive by Christian S. Leffler) is just exploring his sexual orientation. his only experience is with a paratrooper. Then there is the consumptive, homosexual… the rapacious Nightingale, wears his tragedy well. Add to this mix a hunk, Tye (Matt Walsh), who works at a strip club with some very unsavory characters. Tye indulges in drugs, Jane (Arizona Brooks) lets Tye share her bed. She is one of William's fallen birds… she is ill… with a blood thing.
There are two real nut cases who are so poor they bring home food they pick out of garbage cans, Miss Maude (Heather Fairfield) and Miss Carrie (Mary Manofsky excels). A drifter, Sky (Tommy Burrus) appears and wants to bring the young writer out west. And, last but not least is the one stable, sane character, the housekeeper, Nursie (Ina Russell).
There are several subplots happening at the same time. The sultry, steamy relationship of Jane and Tye, 'abuse and loneliness' ... the writer and Nightingale in 'a seduction of lust and loneliness' ... Mrs. Wire's dependence on Nursie and her ultimate emotional adoption of the writer as her son 'memories and loneliness,' plus the hot-water scalding of a photographer and his young models which ends up In court, a 'meal-for-a-quarter' business and more. Mrs. Wire said that she heard… "people die from loneliness. There's so much loneliness in this house, you can hear it" and you really can.
All this is played out with humor, sadness and respect to Tennessee Williams' writing style under the co-direction of Martha Demson and Burr Steers. Performances are good with some standouts.
Playing thru July 30th.
By the mid -'70s, Tennessee Williams thought the time was ripe to deal openly with homosexuality instead of approaching it obliquely through symbol and metaphor. Societal taboos were finally relaxing, But perhaps it was Williams' unabashed frankness about this still controversial subject that closed "Vieux Carre" so quickly when it opened on Broadway in 1977.
Now playing at the Open Fist, Vieux Carre is set in a New Orleans French Quarter boarding-house during the late 1930s. The play is a veritable devil's brew of eccentric Southern characters, all with the distinctive Williams stamp. In the sultry, steamy atmosphere of the Quarter, anything goes--a lot of sex, yes--the kind of sex sparked by the awesome destructive force of loneliness.
Gaunt, gay artist Nightingale (Louis Balestra), obviously in the last stages of consumption, still finds the energy to prowl the streets in search of carnal companionship. Refined Yankee college girl Jane (Arizona Brooks) puts up with the boorishness and neglect of her junkie boyfriend Tye (Matt Walsh) for those few moments of vibrant physical connection.
"People die of loneliness," opines mad landlady Mrs. Wire (Dalene Young), the perversely maternal proprietor of these lower depths. And die they do, unloved and unsung. The wide-eyed Writer (Christian S. Leffier), a transparently autobiographical portrait of the youthful Williams, ironically finds an unprecedented new freedom in the midst of madness and moral contagion but realizes that tie only rational course is, ultimately, escape.
Directors Martha Demson and Burr Steers capture Williams' Southernness without lapsing into caricature, and the cast brings a fine sense of naturalistic urgency to the proceedings. One can almost hear the soft, awful groaning of loneliness in the walls of Tom Brophy's splendidly ramshackle set, the perfect environment for so much human desolation. And Bill Lackemacher's effectively murky lighting keeps those dark corners in shadow, where they belong. A thoughtful production, this "Vieux Carre" is an opportunity to see Williams in the raw, unfettered by the societal constraints that had previously bound him, -F.K.F. o"' Vieux Carre Open Fist, 1625 N, La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends July 30. $15. (213) 882-6912. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Reviewed by Terry Maloney
Tennessee Williams' autobiographical Vieux Carre is set in a dilapidated boarding house in 1938, but it was written in 1978, long after Williams' post-WWII splash in American theatre. The piece's anachronisms thus leap-frog his career as a playwright; characters who talk about "the gay life" and "coming out" are clearly more of the Stonewall era than the Depression. To give him credit, Williams' narratives often got unstuck in time. So it is with Vieux Carre, in which the characters self-consciously span several decades of the playwright's oeuvre. In fact, several of his most famous characters recur here, in what are prequels to his other works; the cast often looks like a bibliography of Williams archetypes. As the Writer, Christian S. Lefiler carries his double duty of narrator and character with aplomb, though his million-dollar smile and perfect haircut make it hard to believe he is much affected by his squalid surroundings. Dalene Young is decades younger than the nutty, strident landlady she plays, but her territorial caterwauling is the evening's most authentic evocation of the depraved setting. Louis Balestra's Nightingale, a sexually predatory gay man dying of consumption, unwittingly prophesies the specter of AIDS: To wit, the straight characters are afraid to touch him and seem unable to separate his disease from his sexual orientation. But, lest Williams be accused of painting homosexuality as the most tragic of lifestyles, there are Tye (Matt Walsh) and Jane (Arizona Brooks), clearly the couple that inspired Stanley and Stella Kowalski; none of Williams' characters sinks to lower depths of self-hatred than this straight couple. Directors Martha Demson and Burr Steers keep up a swift pace and make no attempt to sweeten the play's relentless pessimism. Tom Brophy's, sprawling set achieves the multiple levels of the boarding house, and is well-suited to the warehouse-style space of the Open Fist Theatre.
"Vieux Carre," produced by and at the Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea, Hollywood. June 17-July 30
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