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Gaudy & gorgeous

The Wooster Group sets the “unreal” standard for all future productions of Tennessee Williams’

Like a long beautiful run-on sentence, Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré is a brilliant modern masterpiece that has been misunderstood for decades. The current World Stage production of The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the playwright’s foresight when he decried naturalism in theatre (in his production notes to The Glass Menagerie, written when Williams was beginning the early drafts of Vieux Carré).

Williams’ wishes were quickly derailed by directors with more traditional productions in mind, paving the way for a series of conventional 20th-century versions of his plays that embraced the dominant theatrical form of naturalism. In his introduction to The Glass Menagerie, included in the World Stage program, Williams imagined a theatre that forsakes “realistic conventions” in order “to resume vitality as a part of our culture.” The Wooster Group does precisely this through the use of a variety of acting styles, body microphones that give the voices a subtly powerful cinematic quality, as well as non-naturalistic sets that move seamlessly in and out of a series of tableaux that connect a cast of characters living in an unseemly rooming house in the French Quarter.

In his 1977 New York Times review, Clive Barnes called Vieux Carré  a slight work, with “murmurings of genius,” criticizing the episodic, non-linear nature of the play. “Is Vieux Carré a good play?” he asked, “Probably not. But it depends what you mean by good. It is a play of blatant melodrama and crepuscular atmosphere.” What Barnes sidestepped was the notion that a good play need not adhere to any specific organization of scenes. A good play can depend upon the kindness of strangers — a group of gifted actors guided by an insightful director who sees the script as something more than a depiction of life as we view it through the deceptively biased lens of everyday experience. Williams chose a more expressionistic style for Vieux Carré that connected his characters in almost surreal and startling ways in order to highlight how the real and the imagined can become so integrated within a single psyche that they begin to blur and shape our lived experiences.

Scott Shepherd’s performance brilliantly exemplifies this integration of normative and fantastical characterization as he creates the roles of Nightingale and Tye McCool. He holds the listeners attention from start to finish, delivering sharply dissimilar characters, producing an almost magical presence for these two vary distinct and engaging personas. Ari Flakos as the writer possesses a soft, cool, seductive tone to his voice as he embraces his character as a kind of objective observer, as well as an over-wrought character caught within the drama at hand. Kate Valk as Jane Sparks, and Mrs Wire, alongside Kaneza Schaal’s superb supporting performance as Nursie, brilliantly insert the element of nuanced caricature so crucial to the playwright’s vision.

Williams was able to see, as he experienced a variety of chaotic class settings during his childhood and into maturity, the ways in which personality can move seamlessly into a parody, a caricature of what we often perceive as real, when in fact the parody is every bit as real as the so-called normative presence. The French Quarter remains to this day an environment where this kind of character shifting can appear in high relief through the glare of a scorching southern sun and the intense humidity of the Mississippi River Delta, not to mention the ongoing threat of Katrina-like acts of God that re-invent the human and geographic landscape drastically and at a moment’s notice.

Andrew Schneider’s complex videos and Jennifer Tipton’s evocative lighting, combined with a brilliant soundscape by Matt Schloss and Omar Zubair — all under the impeccable direction of Elizabeth LeCompte — render the overall production a truly exciting exploration of the proverbial human condition. LeCompte has sighted the influence of playwright Charles Ludlum. The dildos, the melodramatic poses, the fright wigs and the overt sexuality Ludlum was a master of, conspire to make the production a gorgeous, at times gaudy rendering of this semi-autobiographical journey through the early career of a great American playwright.

The Wooster version is a sight to behold, and not to be missed, and may remind some of us of the ways in which our lives have been consistently jammed into the corners of culture by infamous critics, among others, and perceived as “crepuscular,” “melodramatic” and “falsified by art,” when in fact the eternal play of art and life has never been a falsification by any stretch of the collective aesthetic imagination. It has been, as Williams so aptly put it “an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.”

The Wooster Group version is a brilliant production that should set the standard for any truly innovative future incarnations of Williams’ great dramas.

THE WOOSTER GROUP’S VERSION OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ VIEUX CARRÉ  Continues at the Fleck Dance Theatre until Sat, March 31. The original, longer version of the this review appears here.