Thursday, July 16, 2015

Two plays by Tennessee Williams: "The Two-Character Play" and "Orpheus Descending"

The Two-Character Play
Civic Rep
(at New City Theater)
Through August 1, 2015

Orpheus Descending
The Williams Project/Intiman Theatre
(at 12th Avenue Arts)
Through August 2, 2015

Tennessee Williams’ most successful and well-known plays were written earlier in his life in an about fifteen year period from 1943 to 1958. The Glass Menagerie was the first hit, but others included A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending and Sweet Bird of Youth.

Always plays of despair and anguish, Williams’ plays and other writings were said to reflect aspects of his own experiences with an alcoholic father, a mentally unstable sister who spent years in asylums, and his own struggle with homosexuality that was dangerous to acknowledge for most of his life.

In his later years, he descended into depression and drug use himself, most precipitously after his longtime partner died, resulting in an early death. This month, Seattle audiences can experience two of his works, early and later.

Robin Jones and Sam Read in The Two-Character Play (Mike Hipple)
The Two-Character Play
The Two-Character Play, a less well known work from his later years, a “failure” at the time due to people’s expectations from his earlier work, might be viewed much differently if you prepare yourself for it. The Civic Rep production, mounted in the tiny New City Theater, seats the audience on either side of a set of indeterminate time period, so we can be voyeurs.

We peer at a brother and sister who seem to be trapped in the theater, left by their management, abandoned by their family, and stuck with stage-agorophobia – the inability to leave the stage, as if it were home. Maybe we are viewing a dream. We can’t be sure if the audience they face is really there or not. It’s so reminiscent of other earlier plays by others, like Waiting for Godot or No Exit, but the relationship of the brother and sister echo more of The Glass Menagerie, as if Tom had stayed and he and Laura had become stranded together.

Directed by L. Zane Jones, Robin Jones as Clare has the kind of aura that envelops the audience into her presence. Her delicate but nervous and volatile performance seems the perfect embodiment of all of Williams’ female characters throughout his writing. Sam Read as Felice does a solid job as the tormented and not much better off brother. But he’s a bit outclassed here.

This play does not have a straightforward plot. It is discursive and meandering. Perhaps poetic. Perhaps overblown. Setting your expectations for more of an “experience” than a “story” may allow you to like the journey more.

More information can be found at: http://www.civicrep.org or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1686974 or call 800-838-3006.

Charlie Thurston and Kemiyondo Coutinho in Orpheus Descending (Jeff Carpenter)
Orpheus Descending
The more famous play is being presented by The Williams Project, a production that is part of what Intiman is calling its “festival,” their summer season of presentations. With many of the company coming from Trinity Repertory Company and their collaboration with Brown University, how they formed this project is easier to guess at.

Orpheus Descending is a tale of a small Southern town, filled with bigotry and backstabbers, and disrupted by a stranger. It is a tragedy, and usually fairly relentlessly dark.

This production is full of what many people are looking for in modern theater these days: casting that is “color blind” and diverse (four actors of color), a new interpretation, and a fresh method of staging. Some of the interpretive elements went so far as to become a bit twee, but it’s a lively and engaging and sometimes even funny presentation!

The cast is all on the young side, so there is no one to play the really older characters but them, but given the group they’re working with, the acting is quite wonderful. The audience sits almost in the round, with the exception of a back “wall” of shower curtains hung on a thick rope, and the lights rarely dim, so the audience becomes part of the small town environment.

It’s a way of making us all complicit in the gossip and bigotry, without making any statement about that at all. Here, while explicit bigotry is uttered in the play toward blacks (the story in the town is about a vineyard owner who makes the mistake of selling to blacks and gets his vineyard burned to the ground), the demonstrated bigotry is to outsiders. Anyone who goes against the established powers can be killed.

Williams always presented themes of outsiderhood and the dangers of stepping out of bounds. He often presented love that fails or goes wrong. His families are full of dysfunction. Orpheus Descending includes many aspects of those themes.

 Tiffany Nichole Greene begins the play as a town resident full of historical information, which she shares freely with Grant Chapman (playing another woman, among several characters he becomes in the play). She is pitch perfect in her delivery, and a joy to watch.

We also meet a town outcast, Carol Cutrere (Elise LeBreton), whose rebellion doesn’t allow her to remain a resident in good standing, but yet her inability to quit the town leaves her in limbo. She is the first to meet Val Xavier (Charlie Thurston), the charismatic stranger who wants to start over anew.

Eventually, we meet Lady Torrance (Kemiyondo Coutinho), trapped in a loveless marriage with the evil Jabe (Max Rosenak, among other roles), not knowing he helped kill her father. Lady hires Val to work in her dry goods store, and while she pledges to keep the relationship all business, the seeds are planted for the tragedy to come.

Two other talented ensemble members are Rebecca Gibel and Richard Prioleau. Each has opportunities to shine individually, as well.

Director Ryan Purcell keeps things light and lively as the actors sit with the audience and mingle within inches. The darkness of the story has a chance to creep up on you, as the play unfolds over 2 ½ hours with two intermissions. You’re even invited to change your seat a couple of times if you don’t like where you’ve been sitting or if you want a new perspective.


This is a strong performance and well worth seeing. For more information, go to www.intiman.org or call 206-315-5835.