September October 2013

Veiled Power

Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2013 / , ,

Writer: Debbie Forman / Photographer: Antonis Achileos 

At this year’s Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, the art of feminine illusion in the playwright’s famous—and little known—plays takes center stage.

Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival

Drawing by Bill Evaul

The intriguing female characters in Tennessee Williams’ plays take center stage in this year’s Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. Developing the theme “Tennessee Williams and Women: 50% Illusion,” David Kaplan, curator of the festival, has selected several plays, from very early ones to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to illustrate the playwright’s view of women and how they use illusion to make their way in the world.

Kaplan is particularly interested in showcasing the early plays, which the playwright wrote in his 20s under the moniker of Tom Williams, before he adopted the name “Tennessee.” Billed as The Chorus Girl Plays, the lineup includes Curtains for the Gentleman, Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!, and At Liberty. Framed in a burlesque revue of chorus-line dancers, the plays will be presented by Danszloop Chicago with choreography by Paula Frasz.

Kaplan notes that he is fascinated by these somewhat obscure works, surmising that the plays are “the building blocks of Williams’ later work.” The curator says that with The Chorus Girl Plays, “We see how Williams develops as a writer.”
“A recurring role in these plays is the chorus girl,” Kaplan goes on to explain. “We see the character as a gun moll in Curtains and as a girl picking up sailors in Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!. In At Liberty, the chorus girl becomes ill and goes home to Mississippi.” Unlike Williams’ later plays that often featured relationships with women from his own life, The Chorus Girl Plays were based on “a received idea from films,” says Kaplan. The curator cites Hollywood actresses, Mae West and Joan Blondell, who played the roles of women “and had to use their intelligence as a survival tactic.” With such a woman, he notes, “her sexuality is applied in that way. She is not someone who can be preyed upon. She is someone aware of [her sexuality] and how to use it to her own advantage.”

Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival

Photo Couresty of Hollywood Fashion Vault

Kaplan feels that women in Williams’ plays were not victims, as some reviewers and commentators have contended. Williams’ women frequently used illusion, whether it be as part of their sexuality, or their personal style to make their way in a society dominated by men.

The overall theme for this year’s 8th annual festival is “Tennessee Williams and Women: 50% Illusion.” The name of the event is taken from a line in one of Williams’ best-known dramas, A Streetcar Named Desire. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Blanche DuBois is trapped in a fantasy world reflective of women’s position in Southern belle culture. In a famous scene from the drama, Blanche says, “A woman’s charm is 50 percent illusion,” as she struggles to withstand the brutal reality of modern society.

“In creating women’s roles,” Kaplan says, “Williams understood that women leading real lives, as Blanche points out in Streetcar, have had to create illusions for themselves—and for others—in order to survive.”

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, produced on Broadway in 1955, the central female character of Maggie is a resourceful, determined, charismatic character that relies on her sexuality and her intelligence to win back a wayward husband. In his book Memoirs, Williams indicates that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was his favorite play. “The play comes closest to being both a work of art and a work of craft,” Williams wrote.

Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival

Photo by Antonis Achileos

The upcoming production of Cat at the Provincetown festival was recently presented at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. The production stars well-known actor Keir Dullea as Big Daddy, Mia Dillon as Big Mama, Steven DeMarco as Brick, and Madeleine Lambert as Maggie.

“In all his plays,” Kaplan says, “Williams celebrates illusion, the making of illusion, and the makers of illusion.” He adds: “Williams lived long enough to see the roles of women change in society, and [his] strategies for creating the illusion of a woman onstage changed as well, especially as time went on. [He included] in his later plays more humor, especially self-aware humor. Fragile grace got replaced with powerful grace, often combined with powerful laughter.”
Slapstick Tragedy: The Mutilated, also being performed at this year’s festival, is an example of Williams’ plays likely to evoke laughter. Produced on Broadway in 1966, The Mutilated was the first of a double bill. Cosmin Chivu, who directs this production, considers it one of the funniest of Williams’ later plays. Presented by Beth Bartley Productions the show stars Mink Stole, the cult favorite of John Waters’ films, and Penny Arcade, the avant-garde performance artist of Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Another work included in the 2013 Provincetown festival is Kingdom of Earth—first showcased on Broadway in 1968—which has had few productions since its creation. The Abrahamse & Meyer production from Cape Town, South Africa, which was part of last year’s festival, returns to Provincetown this year. The play is set in a dilapidated farmhouse during a Mississippi storm; the torrent inside is as dramatic as the weather outside as two half-brothers and a bride deal with conflicts related to gender and race.

Abrahamse & Meyer will also present The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, a show about a wealthy woman long past her beautiful days, writing her memoirs in a villa on the Italian coast. When she meets a handsome young man, she begins to believe—although it is only an illusion—that he loves her.

Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival

Donated by the Campbell, Poirier and Pound Families

A Neo-Benshi performance by poet Roxi Power will accompany the screening of sections of the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. A performance art implemented by San Francisco poets in 2003, “Neo-Benshi” relates to a tradition that developed when silent movies first came to Japan; the benshi, a Japanese storyteller, stood by the screen, acting out roles. In the festival production, Power will lip-synch the dialogue while giving a humorous alternative interpretation of the narrative.

In addition to the works by Tennessee Williams, Jane Bowles’ In the Summer House—a play focusing on a woman trying to break free from a possessive mother—will also be featured. Following this workshop production, a discussion led by Kaplan will explore the play’s connections to Williams’ work.

Singling out three Williams plays that will provide special understanding of his oeuvre, Kaplan especially recommends the early—The Chorus Girl Plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—and the late—The Mutilated. Seeing these plays, he says, “would be like following a waltz from a late Strauss to [one by] Shostakovich.”

Debbie Forman writes about the arts for Cape Cod Life Publications.

Debbie Forman