Theatre Review – The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré

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I’ve coined a word for the US equivalent of Eurotrash, and that is Amerijunk. (FYI, the Canadian epithet is Canacrap.) Unfortunately, Amerijunk best describes the World Stage presentation with the ungainly title of The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré. (Apparently there were issues with the Williams estate over the production.)

I have long been an admirer of New York-based Wooster. The collective has always been in the forefront of multimedia and theatrical experimentation, and certainly deserves its vaunted reputation. Does Vieux Carré show a tired organization out of fresh ideas? Maybe.

Vieux Carré is one of Williams’ later plays. It is, sort of, the sequel to The Glass Menagerie. Think of the character of Tom as leaving St. Louis to go to New Orleans where he will confront himself as a writer, and more importantly, as a homosexual. Williams, in fact, went to New Orleans in the 1930s, and lived in a boarding house at 722 Rue Toulouse, the actual address where the play is set. Presumably, his characters were inspired by the eccentric collection of fellow boarders in this mean streets French Quarter slum. Williams began writing Vieux Carré in the late 1930s but didn’t complete it until 40 years later. In 1977, Vieux Carré opened on Broadway and lasted five performances.

This is another of Williams’ memory plays, so we have a narrator called The Writer (Ari Fliakos). Wooster deals with the large cast by having three actors play two roles, while several others appear by video. The venerable Kate Valk is both the paranoid landlady Mrs. Wire, and runaway, middle class artist Jane Sparks. Scott Shepherd portrays both Nightingale, an aging, gay, lascivious portraitist who takes a strong interest in the Writer, and Tye, Jane’s druggie, bouncer boyfriend. Daniel Pettrow is both the orgy-obsessed Photographer, and the elusive tenant Sky. Kaneza Schaal is Mrs. Wire’s long-suffering housemaid Nursie. Via video, Alan Boyd Kleiman plays both Mary Maude and Miss Carrie, two old lady boarders who are starving to death. Daniel Jackson, Andrew Schneider, Casey Spooner and Ben Williams are minor characters, either live or otherwise.

The later plays of Williams have always been considered lesser vessels in relation to his early classics. They are now, however, coming under revision, and are being mined for the insights they contain by a senior artist. Many scholars now see these plays as standing in their own right, and not merely as the undisciplined ramblings of an old man. Certainly Wooster deserves credit for breathing life into this rarity. My quarrel is with how the Wooster version plays out.

With no intermission, this two hour play is an endless, perhaps, even mindless, bore. The legendary director Elizabeth LeCompte, as suzerain over the creation as a whole, has to take the hit. There is no listed set or costume designer.

First, the set looks like a deranged child’s mechano set with pullies and wires running every which way, not to mention TV screens scattered hither and yon showing both livecam and pre-recorded images. The screens are also hard to see. The playing area consists of several raised platforms covered in detritus. Occasionally, text appears on the back wall, either repeats of what is being spoken, or new text entirely. The technical crew, bathed in garish green light is onstage at the back. What one gets is a chaotic jumble of visual ideas that translate into no meaningful metaphor. One image does stand-out amid the mess, however, and that is Nursie’s face being shown as a cartoon Aunt Jemima figure when actor Shaal puts her head behind the TV screen.

The costumes, presumably chosen by the collective, are modelled on the current trend of dress the characters as personalities, rather than as period correct. So, we get Nightingale sporting a large phallus emerging from his lady-like dressing gown. The near-naked Writer wears a black leather jock thong with various leather strap adornments, and carries a computer keyboard. Mrs. Wire is in a blowsy robe and long ringlets. And so on down the line. And then there is the over-used burst of static sound/light dim-cum-flicker, that follows so-called key lines declaimed by some character or other, or to demarcate the end of scenes. Irritating doesn’t begin to describe how one feels about this all too frequent theatrical device by play’s end.

The gifted Shepherd gives the best performances. His tubercular Nightingale is a soft-spoken, seductive siren who portrays weakness as strength, while the enigmatic Tye is dazed and confused in the truest sense of the word. At all times his portrayals are subtlely nuanced while being clear and precise at the same time. Valk’s Jane is sensitive and intense, but her Mrs. Wire is an overblown caricature spouting an impenetrable mush of words. Fliakos, perhaps the most important character, mails in his performance. He is an absolute monotone bordering on comatose. His main purpose is to pose like a stud in a porno magazine – presumably a metaphor for his new found homosexuality – but over two hours, he becomes a talentless, one trick pony.

Same old, same old? It’s sad to think of the Wooster Group descending into “Damn the torpedoes and art for art’s sake!” (if one can pardon the mixed metaphor). Vieux Carré could be a lot more interesting with less clutter.

The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, Harbourfront World Stage, (featuring Ari Fliakos, Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk, Daniel Jackson, Alan Boyd Kleinman, Daniel Pettrow and Andrew Schneider, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte), Fleck Dance Theatre, Mar. 28 to 31, 2012.