In Masks Outrageous and Austere
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
April 21, 2012
During the last decades of his life the great playwright Tennessee Williams experimented with theatrical forms, exploding the Aristotelian unities and playing with genres in recombinant efforts at plays which retained his poetic voice but pushed out beyond his early successes into a realm of surrealism often tinged with absurdism. He called it Plastic Theater, in which all theatrical means would be explored. I was fortunate to be involved in such a piece, Something Cloudy, Something Clear, which he penned for the Cocteau Rep under the direction of the late Eve Adamson. This was a world premiere and would turn out to be his last professional production before he died.
What I recall is that Williams was a great collaborator who was at his best working with directors who could help him shape his work. One assumes Elia Kazan helped him with those monumental works we all revere. I know Ms. Adamson was a huge help to him. She had great skills at cutting text and coaxing the dramaturgy to the best advantage of the story. Williams and Adamson partnered well in our production, which turned out beautifully.
Now we have a play that Williams never let see the light of day, let alone the advice of a collaborator-director. In Masks Outrageous and Austere is being presented at 45 Bleecker Street by The Culture Project, under the direction of David Schweizer, who took the raw manuscript of various drafts and used computer forensic analysis to synthesize an edition of the text that would approximate the playwright’s intentions. (This is according to the accompanying press materials.) Whatever that process entailed, he somehow has accomplished collaboration across the ether and has come up with an intriguing evening of theatre that is worth seeing.
The story is basically a mystery. Babe, the richest heiress in the world, an aging sexpot played with occasional brilliance by Shirley Knight, finds herself at a beach resort with her considerably younger husband Billy, played by Robert Beitzel, and Billy’s lover Jerry, played by Sam Underwood. None of them knows exactly how they got there or exactly where they are. There are three ubiquitous men named Gideon, who appear to be either Babe’s bodyguards or her keepers, possibly employed by her father who never appears. The Gideons are played by Ward Horton, Scot Charles Anderson and Kaolin Bass with ominous understatement. Similarly attired, they echo the sinister Agent Smith of The Matrix films.
During the play, there are frequent visits from Mrs. Gorse-Bracken and her mentally challenged son Playboy, played by Alison Fraser and Connor Buckley, who apparently live in an unseen mansion nearby. Also making appearances is Mrs. Gorse-Bracken’s forebodingly large husband Mac, who seems only to communicate via grunts, and his diminutive interpreter called Interpreter, played respectively by Jermaine Miles and Jonathan Kim. After some offstage burning of an infestation of tent caterpillars (made remarkably effective by audience-surrounding LED panels) and the appearance of aurora borealis (ditto this LED screens) we ultimately learn what’s what and who is who. (No spoiler from this reviewer.)
At the performance I attended, Knight appeared to be somewhat unsure of some of the text. This played into the character’s age so it was not too bothersome. The flashes of command she evinced elsewhere however indicate she will grow splendidly into the role. (Perhaps the show would have benefited by a longer preview period?) At any rate, her Babe is a typical powerhouse female of the Williams canon and fun to watch. Fraser is also great fun and has the absurd-yet-naturalistic style of the later Williams plays down beautifully. The rest of the cast all give solid performances.
With the considerable help of his design team, Schweizer has given us a “plastic” theatrical environment which suits well the neo-absurd post-modern expressionism of the piece. James Noone’s scene design, Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting design, Daniel Maloney’s video and projection design, and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design all combine wonderfully to create a world of hyper-reality that lives somewhere between a beachside resort and cyberspace. Gabriel Berry’s costumes, too, serve this concept well. I like to think Williams would have loved this production because it evinces the technology now at hand to physically mutate the stage world in ways that he was exploring from a poetic side but that just did not exist in his lifetime.