note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Carl A. Rossi
Gertrude Eastman Cuevas … Jessica Moss
Molly, her daughter … Lily Narbonne
Mrs. Constable … Amanda Mason
Lionel … John Zdrojeski
Vivian … Olivia Hendrick
Mr. Solares … Philip Berman
Mrs. Lopez … Elizabeth Bassett
Inez … Kaley Ronayne
Frederica … Naomi Lindh
Esperanza … Eryn O’Sullivan
Sonia Decker; Maria Gilhooley; Anna Lenes;
Sophie Simpson; Moriah Thomason; Emily Zickler
Once praised by Tennessee Williams as “the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters”, Jane Bowles (1917-1973) is one of those cult-figures whose private (or not-so-private) life overshadowed her accomplishments. A copy of MY SISTER’S HAND IN MINE: THE COLLECTED WORKS OF JANES BOWLES has sat, unread, in my bedroom for years though I know enough about the woman, herself: her open marriage with composer-author Paul Bowles (1910-1999): he had his men; she, her women --- their Brooklyn commune that included W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee --- their long-term residence in Tangiers as expatriates --- her mental and physical deterioration (not quite a Zelda to her husband’s Scott) --- her canon consisting of a novel, a play and a modest amount of short stories. Thus, when Boston University College of Fine Arts announced that its annual Fringe Festival would be devoted to the Bowles, beginning with Ms. Bowles’ IN THE SUMMER HOUSE; I jumped at the chance to see this play that Truman Capote described as having “the flavor of a newly tasted, refreshingly bitter beverage” and whose original Broadway production (1953-54 season) received respectable reviews but failed at the box office.
It’s an odd one, this SUMMER HOUSE, where the widowed Gertrude detests her daughter Molly who spends her days in the title’s structure; both women (re)marry and part company but are irresistably drawn back to each other. The tomboy Vivian comes to board in Gertrude’s house but soon meets an ambiguous end, causing her equally-possessive mother Mrs. Constable to linger in alcoholic grief; Lionel, Molly’s husband, wants to escape to St. Louis, taking Molly with him --- Mr. Solares, Gertude’s husband, and his chatterbox relatives provide comic relief. This “refreshingly bitter beverage” must have been an eye-opener, indeed, in a Broadway season that included TEA AND SYMPATHY, THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (Pulitzer Prize) and THE CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL. Does Ms. Bowles’ play hold up, today? It didn’t for me --- it’s a curiosity-piece, now --- but those who enjoy mother-daughter catfights might call it a fun evening.
The BU production is uneven in its little black box. Director Ellie Heyman vacillates between letting Ms. Bowles’ weirdness speak for itself and pushing the subtext as text in the ol’ cutting-edge way --- the opening seconds alone got my back up, and the actors often enter and exit over a mountain of piled-up furniture rather than coming and going like you and me, but marvelous amends are made with a coup de théâtre in blue-and-green. This being a college production, the more successful performances are by those whose roles match up with their own youthful palettes: thus, Lily Narbonne and John Zdrojeski are true, enough, in Molly and Lionel’s duets, though Elizabeth Bassett (Mrs. Lopez) shows promise as a future character comedienne. There is an unforced, scene-stealing turn by Kaley Ronayne in a sassy minor role, and a tall, leggy blonde named Eryn O’Sullivan sashays throughout like a showgirl with attitude. Despite its flaws, I preferred this HOUSE to the Huntington’s safe, cavernous BUS STOP that is playing, downstairs, even though Mr. Inge wrote the far-better play.
The Fringe Festival concludes with Mr. Bowles’ opera YERMA, based on Lorca’s poetic tragedy (October 16, 17, 22, 23), an evening of Mr. Bowles’ art songs (October 24), and a celebration of both Bowles in music, dramatic readings and dance (October 30).
note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Carl A. Rossi
Marquis de Sade … Timothy Otte
Abbe de Coulmier … Eric Hamel
Madeleine LeCleur … Jenny Reagan
Dr. Royer-Collard … James Bocock
Renee Pelagie … Sally Nutt
Madame Royer-Collard … Kirin McCrory
Monsieur Prouix / Lunatic … Erin Gilligan
Any theatre company taking on Doug Wright’s QUILLS has a hot potato on its hands: set in eighteenth-century France, a fictionalized Marquis de Sade, imprisoned in Charenton Asylum for his sexual notoriety, now commits his outrages on paper; Dr. Royer-Collard, the newly-appointed head of the asylum, has already seized one of the Marquis’ novels and assigns the Abbe de Coulmier to monitor this satyr-madman who has begun to smuggle his stories out of prison with the help of Madeleine, a smitten laundress. When sexual fantasy explodes into murder, the Abbe resorts to desperate measures to restrain the Marquis, becoming a monster surpassing the Master, himself. QUILLS can be read on several levels: a parable about censorship versus freedom of expression, a debate on the aesthetics of pornography and its place in society, and a vaudeville where the comedian (the Marquis) gives the straight-man (the Abbe) a continuous slow burn.
Two hot potatoes, really: (1) the Marquis’ graphic arias and (2) his cavorting in the nude for half of his stage-time. The Bad Habits production fumbles and all but drops them: Daniel Morris has directed with a long, distancing arm that diminishes the Marquis’ hypnotic sway over others, making QUILLS a very talky play, indeed --- Shaw or Shaffer with naughty words. Timothy Otte makes a nimble-tongued Marquis of little danger and is a mature yet trim nude; while the audience is free to take repeated stock of Mr. Otte’s inventory, the Abbe and Madeleine lock eyes with their Marquis lest their gazes, too, also stray --- and a delicious comic moment has been lost: imagine the girl’s gaze, upon seeing her first naked man, repeatedly traveling from the Marquis’ face to his penis and back again whilst conversing! Apart from Sally Nutt, who brings some stylization to the Marquis’ rattled wife, the uneven cast wrestles more with declamation than characterization (oddly, only one of them attempts a French accent), and Wendy Misinuis has dressed her actors in colliding eras. Samantha LeDoyt’s stark lighting is no match for the fetid atmosphere that New Repertory created for its own production, five seasons ago --- in that atmosphere, the animal came out in all of the characters and made for a wicked black comedy. My one nitpik with New Rep’s achievement is echoed, here: both Marquises, when nude, remain(ed) remarkably clean in their cells.