note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Young Mother and others … Megan Love
Terrorist; Steve and others … Roger Moore
Stanley Kowalski … Walter Belenky
Eunice … Olive Another
Stella Kowalski … Penny Champayne
Blanche Dubois … Ryan Landry
Mitch … Larry Coen
Flower Seller and others … Keith Orr
Over three years ago, I attended The Gold Dust Orphans’ MADAME EX at the Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts, written by and starring Ryan Landry and billed as “an innocent woman caught in a sinister web of indecent sex and halfway decent drugs”. This was my first encounter with the Orphans; afterwards, I wrote:
“So how does one (seriously) review this show, which happily revels in its own trashiness and may not be as much fun if given a more conventional theatre, a full-scale production and “mainstream” acting? Perhaps the best way is to remove the stigma of "drag queen" and see the performers as clowns who wear dresses instead of baggy pants … May Mr. Landry drag on --- but may he also transcend the limits he has set for himself: instead of trashing another Universal soap, why not tackle LYSISTRATA or attempt an all-male Shakespeare (mini) production --- and grow? He may risk losing his current audience, but he may also gain a bigger box office.”
The Gold Dust Orphans have dragged on through a dozen hilarious shows, since then, and if Mr. Ryan has yet to take on the classics that may be because he still has many send-ups to get through, first. The Orphans have always been fueled by party-hearty audiences, up close and personal, and the Ramrod continues to be their ideal environment. They have now begun to mix the serious and poignant with the ribald and silly with no reduction in audience size (its numbers, as far as I can tell, have grown), they have acquired the valuable services of the “mainstream” Larry Coen, and they have been given their due with the 2004 Elliot Norton Award for Best Fringe Theatre (I say “Fringe” be damned --- what other Boston theatre company boasts a playwright (Mr. Landry) who can turn out three scripts a year for its troupe and a director (James P. Byrne) who has yet to run out of inspiration or repeat himself?). Yes, Mr. Landry and the Orphans have arrived and they prove with A T-STOP NAMED DENIAL that they are only getting better.
A repertory company is a living organism: people come and go over the years, and the Orphans have had their own arrivals and departures. Charlie Fineran, slim and saucer-eyed, was often the grotesque foil to Mr. Landry’s endearing daffiness and departed after JOAN CRAWFORD’S CHRISTMAS ON THE POLE for which he earned an Addison for his inspired Mildred Deerce --- those were the days when “What’s good for P’town is good for Beantown” seemed to be the guiding philosophy: there were exposed male and “female” anatomies, white “coke” noses and, in one instance, a brown-stained diaper tossed into the audience. Following Mr. Fineran’s departure, Penny Champayne, the touching lead in SCARRIE pointed the Orphans in a new direction as the seriously-played drunken mother of the dead boy in their revised BAD SEED and her Melanie Daniels was the no-nonsense bedrock to all of the clever low-budget bird-attacks in THE GULLS (which, in turn, introduced Olive Another, soon to become another valued favorite); if the Fineran Years were Old Comedy, THE BAD SEED and THE GULLS were brief inserts of Middle in preparation for the New: Larry Coen, an established actor/playwright/director, came on board for WHO’S AFRAID OF THE VIRGIN MARY? and has since stayed on --- thanks to Mr. Coen and Ms. Champayne, the company has relaxed and mellowed without losing its zaniness, especially Mr. Landry himself --- now his little moments stick more in the memory rather than his big, florid ones --- and A T-STOP NAMED DENIAL has a richness and texture that threatens to become Chekhovian.
The evening, of course, spoofs a certain play by a certain Mr. Williams and has been transferred from the French Quarter to Boston’s underground T-Stop “Denial” where a lusty couple live while an unspecified war rages above ground not unlike the Blitz of 1942. The wife’s chatterbox sister comes to stay with them, having lost the family’s potato plantation Belle Revere to bankruptcy thanks to an anti-carb public; she attracts the husband’s best friend, a mama’s boy, but loses him when the husband throws light on her sordid past and takes her, himself, with plot twists along the way. There is Mr. Landry at his loveliest, complete with Mary Pickford curls, as the sister and Ms. Champayne as a sturdy, sensual wife; Mr. Coen’s Mitch, nervous as a frog in a French restaurant, is both humorous and touching. I have seen Walter Belenky, the Orphan’s latest stud, elsewhere; he is not unlike a sitcom kid brother --- an impression reinforced after seeing him as the shirtless husband --- but he is scruffy-kitten sweet. There are many, many laugh-provoking moments stemming from characterizations or the kitchen sink, such as the sister’s facial expressions when Proustian circus music is heard; the “T’ repeatedly rattling across the stage; an upstairs neighbor in the form of a one-armed, one-legged ventriloquist’s dummy; documents, yellowed by antiquity; a septet of rats racing across the back wall; the sister standing behind her suitor and tipping his hat and wiping his brow for him; cigarette ash absentmindedly flicked on a newborn babe; the sister’s insanity suggested by her protruding hand doing all the talking from inside the ladies’ room. Act Two may drag, a bit (in the traditional sense) but that is the price to pay for Mr. Landry being so faithful, in his own way, to Mr. Williams.
Whoever Prof. Windsor Newton is, he is to be commended for his detailed T-setting down to the last grimy bit of subway tile --- his shade of T-green for the cinder block pillars is true to life --- and sound-designer Private Richie Ladue has remembered to include a rick-a-tick noise for the turnstile. Madame’s Simpson’s retro costumes for the sister are all the funnier for being so accurate a signpost as to what women in Mr. Williams’ day considered slinky and alluring. Mr. Landry wears them well --- can Boston expect a BABY DOLL in the near future? (BUBBE DOLL, set in Brookline?)
note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Darius Wheeler … V Craig Heidenreich
Setsuko Hearn … Christine Toy Johnson
John Bell … Brad Heberlee
Claire Tsong … Jane Cho
Elizabeth Newman-Orr … Heather Lea Anderson
Owen Matthiassen … MacIntyre Dixon
Kurogo … Jennifer Armour; Ariel Carson; Jared Craig
The Huntington production of Naomi Iizuka’s 36 VIEWS is one of the loveliest things you will see, this season: Adam Stockhausen has filled the Boston University Stage with sleek combinations of glass and wood backed by projections based on Hokusai’s woodblocks and Chris Parry’s mood-lighting makes everything look smart and sophisiticated including the play, itself: Darius Wheeler, an unscrupulous art dealer based in Japan, is astounded when his assistant John Bell presents him with a facsimile of a recently-discovered eleventh century courtesan’s journal. Setsuko Hearn, a professor of East Asian literature, also becomes interested in this “pillow book”; she and Wheeler have a brief affair en route to learning that this literary find is a hoax generated by Bell, who comes to regret his actions, and his friend Claire Tsong whose motive is revenge on Wheeler for cheating her out of some family heirlooms, years ago. Elizabeth, an equally ruthless journalist, exposes the hoax after the Wheeler-dealer has stung her in a black market business scheme (she also gets Claire in the bargain); Owen, a befuddled academic figure, rounds out the dramatis personae. On the night I attended, the audience seemed delighted with 36 VIEWS whereas I felt Ms. Iizuka’s play is neither as deep nor mysterious as it appears to be on the surface because, judging by this production, it is nothing but surface with Kabuki accents.
Whenever I attend a play with which I am not familiar, I prefer not read the program notes beforehand, choosing to wander on my own into the playwright’s world and to find my own way out, again. I was later surprised to read how innovative 36 VIEWS is meant to be with its blending East and West into both plot and mise-en-scène; however, thanks to Brecht’s alienation theories, decades of minimal set design, the cinema’s influence on plot structure and the theatre’s restless search for anything new and then milking it to death, 36 VIEWS is more familiar than groundbreaking --- when a stunning geisha shed layer upon layer of kimonos, I knew, I just knew she would finish in modern dress as the present-day Setsuko --- which she did; do I need to be told that this sort of costume change is “Hikinuki” when I’ve seen it often enough, elsewhere? Was I supposed to be aware of (and count?) the thirty-six individual scenes equaling the number of Hokusai’s views of Mt. Fuji when I really felt this was one more episodic film script posing as a stagework? Have today’s audiences grown so thick that they need the rapping of wooden clappers to alert them that a tense climax is approaching or that a scene has terminated? Must Claire bounce offstage like a fox, fingers curled in demonstration of “Kitsune Roppo”, when she has already proven herself to be one cunning little vixen? (When Claire undergoes a sudden costume change in Bell’s presence (“Bukkaeri”), the effect is striking but misplaced; she should save her metamorphosis for her final scene with Elizabeth.) I am not averse to cross-cultural blending: PACIFIC OVERTURES and THE LION KING are brilliant hybrids of foreign lands and Broadway showbiz but the difference is the two cannot be separated in these musicals whereas Ms. Iizuka’s play can easily be shorn of its Kabuki-isms. Ms. Iizuka has spent so much time decorating her play that she has forgotten about its architecture: Wheeler and Setsuko are two boneless Beautiful People always poised between culture and cocktails (Wheeler wears the ubiquitous turtleneck); Act One’s curtain rings down on the minor character Bell, panicking over his folly, and he is largely ignored by his creator, afterwards; Claire, a supporting role, walks off with the show in her talons. The play’s greatest flaw is that Ms. Iizuka doesn’t dwell at any length on the seductive pillow book itself, giving away its lie almost as soon as it appears --- Thomas Gibbons was wise to fabricate a good deal of literary illusion in his BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE in order to devastate with the book’s unintended falseness --- Mr. Gibbons shows; Ms. Iizuka only tells.
Still, a layered production could give 36 VIEWS some depth and mystery but the Huntington serves up yet another evening of predictable good taste (Safe Sex, here, means never taking off your boxer shorts). The Kabuki trappings might have worked had director Evan Yionoulis first warmed up the character interaction (i.e “Western”) and then cooled things down with the clappers, etc. (i.e. “Eastern); the effect would have been the aural equivalent of a close-up pulling back to a long shot. Instead, Mr. Yionoulis keeps everything refrigerated --- if he aims for icons, he ends up with stereotypes: V Craig Heidenreich’s Wheeler is a swinging bachelor with his hands always in his pockets; Christine Toy Johnson’s Setsuko is the Good Asian Woman to Jane Cho’s She-Devil; Brad Heberlee plays Bell so nervously that Wheeler, for all his supposed shrewdness, must be incredibly dim not to catch on to him sooner; MacIntyre Dixon’s Owen is one of Dickens’ fussy old pedants; and whenever Heather Lea Anderson’s Elizabeth strides on, you know the bitch means Trouble.
This is where I would close by saying why didn’t the Huntington place 36 VIEWS on its smaller stage at the BCA and save its barn for an AIDA or a NICHOLAS NICKLEBY; instead, I will mention another location --- I’ve never been to Tokyo but judging from what I’ve seen, media-wise, it resembles an over-populated hell on earth, shot through with neon; Mr. Yionoulis’s vision of Tokyo is one so vast and laid-back it’s positively Los Angeles; if I may allude to the legend carved into the theatre’s proscenium, what sort of Mirror is being held up to what sort of Nature?