The Tennessee Williams Project
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The Hypocrites at Chopin Theatre. By Tennessee Williams. Dir. Matt Hawkins. With ensemble cast. 1hr 45mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
"Just imagine this country without queens. It would be absolutely barbaric," cringes the self-described transvestite in And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens…, the first of three Tennessee Williams rarities on this Hypocrites bill. Director Matt Hawkins, who staged the Hypocrites' memorable 2010 production of Cabaret, says he delved into Williams's lesser-known works while preparing to play Stanley in David Cromer's Writers Theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire that same year. (His wife, Hypocrites company member Stacy Stoltz, played Stella there and serves as assistant director here.)
The slate of one-acts Hawkins put together feels quite telling of Williams's career-long obsessions. It also seems like a glimpse into his unrulier side: Where the playwright's major works are dotted with semi-coded references to homosexuality (i.e. the neverending debate about just how close Cat on a Hot Tin Roof's Brick was to poor dead Skipper), And Tell Sad Stories is remarkably blatant for the time it's thought to have been written, the late 1950s.
Protagonist Candy (Patrick Gannon) brings sailor Karl (Joseph Wiens) home from the bar to his French Quarter abode, where Candy changes into something more comfortable: a flowing wrap dress, blonde wig, lipstick and fuck-me heels. Karl protests not enough but starts downing Old Grand-Dad while Candy goes on tragically about the life she envisions for them. Staged in the Chopin Theatre's fabulously baroque basement lobby, it's hard not to see the piece as a transfixing and brutal snapshot of a particular pre-Stonewall mindset.
Hawkins moves us into the basement theater proper for the second piece on the bill, one thought to have been written near the end of Williams's life in the 1980s, The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde. Sickness and mortality were definitely on the playwright's mind in this far more out-there piece, as were sexual transgressions; the scenario is a visit by Hall (Eric Leonard) to his old boarding school mate Mint (Gannon), now a paraplegic staying in the attic of the ghoulish, sexually depraved Mme. Le Monde (Mary Redmon).
But to hear the sadistic Walton tell it, Mint's quite the deviant himself, while Mint, who moves about the space by swinging from "hooks" on the ceiling, claims he's regularly victimized by Le Monde's brute of a son (Wiens). It's all very dark and insinuating, and Hawkins stages it with an indulgent brio similar to Calixto Bieito's controversial take on Williams's Camino Real at the Goodman two years ago, keeping William Kirkham's lighting ominous and Heath Hays's sound design smirkingly ironic, with instrumental covers of Björk's "Human Behaviour" and the Beatles' "Come Together."
We move even further into the space for what's the final piece on the slate but the first chronologically, a much more realism-based work set in a St. Louis hospital and thought to be written when Williams was at Washington University there. The Big Game centers on a hospitalized youth, Dave (Gannon), who's losing one roommate, a WashU football player (Wiens) recovering from a leg infection, and gaining another (Meister) who's going in for surgery to remove a brain tumor.
Dave, we learn in conversations between the other patients and a pair of nurses (Redmon and Osiris Khepera), is "a congenital heart case"—just as Gannon's character is in And Tell Sad Stories. Even before his sister Rose's diagnosis with schizophrenia and eventual lobotomy, it appears, young Tom was already fixating on the twin specters of disease and death. And references in The Big Game call back, though forward through the decades, to other potent symbols from the other plays, including talk of a meat cleaver and a sultry, red-headed waitress. Hawkins's project is a beguilingly shaggy peek into the far corners of Williams's mind.