Monthly Archives: April 2012

In Masks Outrageous and Austere at Culture Project

So, you know when you’re a kid, and you have that one grandparent.  We all know what I’m talking about here.  That one that sort of spouts nonsense but everyone kinda puts up with it, cuz hey, he’s old.  But then like, the older you get, the more uncomfortable it gets – because turns out grandma’s stories are not just crazy, they’re also kinda racist, and everyone shares an uncomfortable look around the dinner table when she goes off?  And like, you could say something, but what purpose would it really serve, because well…you know.  She’s old.  And kinda funny.  Like, when you don’t think too hard about it.  And every once and a while she hits on something actually profound, so if you listen to the stream of word babble long enough you might actually get something out of it?

Basically I had the theatrical version of that experience this past Saturday night at Culture Project’s production of In Masks Outrageous and Austere, Tennessee William’s final play, “completed” shortly before his death in 1983, and unproduced until now.

Why, you ask?  Such genius as Tennessee Williams – why in the world would any theater company not jump on the chance to produce his final work (excuse me, according to the promotional materials, his final “masterpiece”)?

That was the predominant question in my mind when I attended Saturday night’s show, one that was quickly and efficiently answered.  By 20 minutes into the show, it was clear – In Masks Outrageous and Austere is truly a Crazy Grandpa of a play.  This is no Streetcar Named Desire, people.  Nor is it a Glass Menagerie.  If we’re to assume all playwrights go through some evolutionary process as they move from work to work across their careers, then In Masks Outrageous and Austere marks, for Williams, a solid evolution to Boozeville and Crazytown.

I’ll admit – I was seriously psyched when we entered the theater on Saturday night.  The space is set up with the kind of theatrical presence that makes your stomach tighten and gives you goosebumps – it’s clearly installed, it is something, it promises a journey of some kind – good, bad, or indifferent, this play is gonna take you somewhere.  60 LED panels line the walls of the theater – mirrored walls and numerous actors dressed like 80s versions of futuristic secret service agents patrol in dark sunglasses, while funkazoidal music plays.  One of the actors speaks into a microphone, repeating, over and over, that they are “Gideons, here for your safety”.  Only the white sand along the aisles gives any indication of organicism; otherwise, the entire space feels futuristic, but in exactly the “1983” sense that crazy old Tennessee Williams would have been picturing it.  (“Crazy” and “old” meant with only the greatest affection, people.  After all, if the play is a grandparent, Williams feels like another one.  Or at least a kooky great uncle).

And then the play starts.  Quickly, I realized that with Masks, Tennessee Williams has taken the types of characters his always writes – deeply  disaffected yet deeply passionate, deeply drunk yet deeply verbose, and oh so Southern, and in this case also made them rich and put them in the world’s most bizarre setting.  Babe, a rich old heiress, and her younger husband Billy (and his lover Jerry), have been mysteriously kidnapped by the mysterious, taciturn “Gideons”.  Not entirely clear on who they are, although they work for some mysterious, powerful organization.  And they call themselves Gideons.  They did that a lot.  I spent a while thinking they were gay robots.  But now I think they were real people, and maybe…bisexual?

Robert Bietzel, Shirley Knight and Sam Underwood: Billy, Babe and Jerry. Just yer classic love triangle.

Anyway, Babe and Billy and Jerry are alarmed by the fact that they were kidnapped, and have turned up on a mysterious island, but only insofar as it gives them something to talk about sometimes.  Other times they talk about themselves, and their agony, and sex, and the love triangle that is old Babe, young Billy, and younger Jerry.  Also on the island is the opera singing Matron and her (maybe???) mentally challenged masturbating son who gets sodomized for gumdrops.  Course, I’m describing this play before it really got weird in Act 2, when the Matron’s ex-husband, a “big Black man” who literally cannot speak but grunts his feelings instead, shows up, with his – yup – dwarf translator.  Who he often lifts in the air, grunts to, and sets down to translate his frustrations.  And, oh yeah, SPOILER ALERT, at the end the Gideons kill Jerry and Billy for…some reason… and Babe kills herself by walking in the ocean, which she was terrified of before then.  For some reason.  And it turns out the Gideons were all “acting”? Although if you ask me, it seems not so much like acting if you murder people.  But they announce they were acting, so that was a big take-away for me, at least.

some people, doin some stuff

It was a big ol’ WTF.  According to the director’s note, in a 1981 interview, Tennesse Williams described the play as “important”, “extremely funny” and “bizarre as hell”.

Ummm, OK.  1/3, Tennessee.

Or, oh, I dunno.  Maybe 2/3.  Because when you write A Streetcar Named Desire, you’re basically earning yourself the right to be produced indefinitely, right?  Including the real cray-cray stuff that you write when you’re in your old, crazy, racist days?  It’s hard sometimes to take a play like this in as a young playwright in an MFA program, because I know that if I or any of my classmates were to show up with a draft like it, we’d be told (politely, but firmly) to come back when we had our heads on straight.  But then again, none of us are Tennessee Williams so…touche there.

And of course, the play is not without theme, poetry, and moments of insight.  The man was a genius, regardless of his mental state or crazy ass ideas.  And god bless the actors – they worked their butts off.  Shirley Knight, the famous stage actress who worked pretty extensively on Williams’ plays when he was alive, takes the role of Babe, and the scenes between her and the Matron, played awesomely by Alison Fraser, while long winded and seemingly random, do achieve moments of profundity.  And I mean, I’m always gonna give a touch more leeway to a play that drenches attractive men in water and sends them out on stage wearing nothing but speedos.  I mean, a girl’s got less to say when she has something nice to look at.  Just sayin’.

Shirley Knight and Alison Fraser at the show's opening

Clearly, death and government and love and homosexuality and definitions of madness are all themes in this strange, weird play.  And, honestly, for all accounts, I should hate it a lot more than I do.  Everything I’ve thus far described was maddening in its randomness; unsatisfyingly bizarre and kind of offensive – in terms of its attitude towards race,  physicality, and mental illness, for sure.  But the more I think of it, the more it reminds me of a crazy ol’ grandparent – nonsensical but never boring, cringe-worthy but entertaining as hell and hey, you gotta give it credit – entirely confident in its crazy.

My favorite sentence from David Schweizer’s Director’s Note was this one: “Though our production of In Masks Outrageous and Austere might seem like some kind of “take” on the play, I assure you it is not.”  It gave me a clear picture of Tennessee Williams – who, in all seriousness, suffered from depression and drug addiction in his final years – typing away excitedly, and perhaps finding some kind of legitimate respite from his challenging mental state in this work.  “There must be a translator, and he must be a dwarf!” Tennessee declares in my head, possessed and buoyed by a new sense of purpose.  Very good, Tennessee. Write your crazy play, and guess what?  We’ll produce it.  Why the fuck not.

Did I think the play was good?  Wow, no.  Not even a little.

But am I glad I saw it?

Yeah, in a way, I kinda loved it.  The same way I love my own crazy family – with a great deal of frustration, yes, but ultimately…hell, I’ll say it.  Love.

Oh Tennessee. Gotta love ya.

PS – Culture Project has a great flickr photostream of production photos – that I was somehow not able to leech for this article.  So check it out here, instead, if you’re interested!

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A Streetcar Named Desire at the Broadhurst Theater, or An Open Letter to the Lovely Folks Sitting Behind Me At Saturday’s Show

An Open Letter to the Lovely Folks Sitting Behind Me At Saturday’s Performance of A Streetcar Named Desire

Dear Lovely Folks Sitting Behind Me At Saturday’s Performance of A Streetcar Named Desire –

I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for making Saturday afternoon’s performance of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Broadhurst Theater such an exceptional experience.  When I purchased the tickets for this new revival running on Broadway for a limited time, (previews began April 3rd), I distinctly remember thinking “if only I could ALSO purchase tickets to a streaming line of commentary from a bunch of moronic assholes, to run concurrently with the production.”  Unfortunately, TDF was not offering this option as a ticket upgrade, so you can imagine my delight when the production began and you four began said streaming commentary.

I’ll admit, I was nervous you wouldn’t have the stamina to continue commenting for literally the entire production.  I feared you might need a break, might want to watch the show yourself, or might (god forbid), consider that perhaps there were others in the audience who didn’t want to watch a show with your commentary.  Thank god you were willing to engage with absolutely no one on the subject of absolutely everything for the absolute duration of the performance.

See, I like my theater to be as close to the “director’s commentary” version of a DVD as possible, in that I want to not really be able to hear or appreciate the film itself, and instead listen to someone else talking about it.

And I’ve always found myself wondering, when watching hours of director commentary of films on DVD, what it would be like if the commentator were not the director, or someone involved with the film in any capacity, but instead just a useless nobody with provincial, obvious, idiotic and offensive views about the film. I shall wonder no longer! Your provincial, obvious, idiotic and offensive views about A Streetcar Named Desire went above and beyond the call of duty in uselessness and offensiveness.  And the way you delivered them – so smug, so self-satisfied, so loud! – really added that je ne sais quoi that I was looking for in my disruptive theater-going experience.

Oh, did you want me to review the actual show? Would that I could, people. WOULD THAT I COULD.

I know, I’ve often complained in the past about the “motherfucking Broadway audience“, but it’s experiences like this one that really make me change my tune.  I can’t decide what my favorite moment of your commentary was – when you advised Stella not to “go down those stairs” (I can’t believe she didn’t listen to you!), when you repeatedly called Blanche “bipolar” (and I appreciated how much you repeated that one, see, I kept FORGETTING that you thought she was bipolar so hearing it an average of once every 2 minutes helped keep the opinion fresh in my mind).  Was it when you announced that the show was boring and you preferred musicals, or when you announced that Blair Underwood, who played Stanley, was your boyfriend, and admonished Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played Stella, for kissing him.  I mean – who could blame you!  I was glad to hear, too, that Blair Underwood was no longer your boyfriend after you saw him being physically abusive towards Daphne Rubin-Vega and Nicole Ari Parker, who played Blanche.  I hope he took the breakup well.  You’ll have to let me know how everything works out with that.

If I absolutely had to pick a favorite pearl of wisdom, however, I might say the moment when you pronounced Blanche’s rape fair, because she “teased too much.” I wasn’t sure how I felt about rape, before that moment – I guess I was under the mistaken impression that it was, like, wrong, or something?!? – but you really put it into perspective when you made that statement.  She really did tease too much, didn’t she!  Thank you for sharing your obviously rich and layered world view with me.  I know I didn’t ask for it, but you just knew. (Hey, kinda like Blanche when she gets raped, I guess! AMIRITE LADIES?!)

I also think the risk you took in contributing to the artistic vision of the show was fantastically bold and successful.  They really didn’t have enough of a soundscape, did they?!  Your addition of “Extended Noise That Sounded Like Several Large Bags of Popcorn Being Repeatedly Crinkled Inside A Larger Bag, Probably One Of Those Really Loud Plastic Bags They Give You At Bed Bath And Beyond” to nearly every scene added so much to my artistic appreciation of the show overall.

My only regret, I guess, is that you couldn’t somehow also contribute to my visual appreciation of the show.  But, as you were sitting behind me, I guess that wasn’t possible – instead I had to contend with viewing the incredibly rich and lush set, lit with absolute perfection by Edward Pierce.  It was stunning lights, harmonizing brilliantly with the set and costumes, and one of the few experiences unsoiled by your particular artistic vision.  I can only imagine how you would have added to it, if you could.  Ah well, I guess I shouldn’t get greedy – it’s just that your audio contribution was so stellar that I can’t help wanting more.*

Some people who apparently acted in this production.

I’ve been trying, repeatedly, to think of things to say about the production proper, beyond my quick shout out to the lights and set – but I’ll admit, my experience of A Streetcar Named Desire was so wholly taken up by your presence and contribution that I barely remember anything about the “actual show” (cue highly ironic air quotes and an expression of disdain).  Psh.  “Actual Show Schmactual Show, am I right?!” We both know that you guys were what we really paid money to hear. Sure, Blair Underwood did a pretty fabulous job as Stanley, and Nicole Ari Parker was very, very good as Blanche**, but who really cares?!  You guys really understood what this show was about – disruptive ramblings from assholes!  Isn’t that why we go to live theater in the first place?!  Isn’t that what “respect” for theater is really all about?!

So thank you; it’s people like you who remind me, so completely, of everything I love about the New York Theater scene.

Go fuck yourselves,




*Okay, so FOR THE RECORD, that paragraph is confusing because my comments on the light and set design is meant entirely sincerely, whereas, if you haven’t figured it out, all that stuff about the commentators is complete bullshit. But dang were the lights (sincerely!) great in this production!

**Same here — sincere props to these actors! I only wish I could have appreciated your talents without disruption…

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