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?
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.
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’.
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.
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!