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Theater review: 'Vieux Carre' at REDCAT

December 4, 2010 |  1:56 pm

Vieux carre 1 
In the mood for a paradox? The Wooster Group’s handling of “Vieux Carré” manages to be faithful both to the company’s postmodern aesthetic and to the tender, outrageous and rather louche 1977 memory play that Tennessee Williams completed near the end of his career.
 
How do you reconcile styles that are galaxies apart? The production, which runs through Dec. 12 at REDCAT, bridges the gap by treating this literary and sexual coming-of-age drama with an impious piety. (Warning: skimpy underwear, rubber phalluses and lewd sexual acts abound with dry insouciance.)

I’d trade a dozen or so Broadway retreads of Williams’ acknowledged masterpieces for one brilliant production of the erratic “Vieux Carré,” a play in which the innocent and dissolute sides of Williams’ sensibility confront each other. I’m not sure if any traditional staging could sort out the work’s tonal shifts, the lurches from grotesque comedy to autumnal pathos, from bone-chilling loneliness to ribald sleaze. But the Wooster Group's patently unorthodox approach will be hard to beat. 

Vieux carre 2Director Elizabeth LeCompte finds her own eccentric way into the spiritual heart of Williams’ oddball drama. For those expecting stage directions to be followed to the letter (in other words, anyone totally unfamiliar with this experimental company), this version may seem radical, even perverse. But surfaces can be deceptive.

Physically, the production constructs its own locale, a hallucinatory space that’s tightly focused on the protagonist, known simply as the Writer (Ari Fliakos). This shy young man has taken refuge in a tawdry New Orleans boardinghouse after leaving his St. Louis home.  He's come to the right spot in his search for experience, but the cheerfully sordid French Quarter is presented here as a state of mind rather than a quaint destination.

The décor — call it industrial flophouse — doesn’t reveal much. The atmosphere is conveyed by the libertine antics of the boardinghouse residents, who teach the Writer about the pleasures and pains of sensual adulthood. 

Although the play is set in the late 1930s, the production suggests a hybrid between the tail end of the Great Depression and the debauched 1970s. A disco thud, some liberated gay campiness and the old pop hit “Seasons in the Sun” tacitly update the action. But with the Writer typing furiously on a computer keyboard (no doubt composing the scenes we're watching), all bets about the era are off. 
 
This being a Wooster Group offering, there are the usual multimedia layers complicating the audience’s perception of the stage picture. An early sequence involving the nutty landlady (company muse Kate Valk) and her ready-to-retire servant (Kaneza Schaal) is especially disorienting. The play’s crepuscular ambience is taken to heart, and it’s as though we’re eavesdropping on phantoms in the dark. But the use of screens and computer blips isn't as full-throttle as other Wooster Group adventures.
 
The biggest surprise is how closely the text is followed. The actors may not speak the lines the way the playwright meant them to be spoken (the Southern gothic humor is parodied, the overwrought emotionalism rendered in a deadpan). But the play, slightly rearranged and condensed, pronounces itself clearly.

That said, those with a working knowledge of “Vieux Carré” will have an advantage over those making its acquaintance for the first time. This is my favorite Wooster Group piece since “To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre)” in 2002, but as someone with a soft spot for this poor relation of a Williams play, I didn’t have to struggle to find my bearings. The plot — if you can call this succession of outré encounters a plot — is simple enough, but LeCompte and company take delight in tangling things up.

As the Writer, Fliakos, slithering about his room in a black thong, anchors the production. The performance, which never attempts anything remotely resembling a Williams impersonation, quietly lays bare the essential conflict between a writer’s higher consciousness and his carnal self. 

This is a dilemma that the playwright never resolved for himself, but with his unwavering faith in the kindness of strangers, he introduces a handsome drifter named Sky (Daniel Pettrow) who just happens to be driving to the West Coast. Will the Writer summon the courage to leap into the unknown?  First things first: There are anthropological studies to be done.    

In addition to her role as the wacky, warden-like Mrs. Wire, Valk plays Jane Sparks, a New Yorker (note the Rhoda Morgenstern accent) with a mysterious illness who has thrown respectability away for a torrid affair with a heroin-using strip-show barker.  Like so many of Williams’ female characters, she is fleeing death through desire, wallowing in bed with a man she considers crass yet addictively pleasurable. And she becomes for the Writer an enduring emblem of fragile rebellion.   

Scott Shepherd plays Jane’s seedy, crotch-grabbing lover as well as Nightingale, the gay tubercular quick-sketch artist who sleeps on the same floor as the Writer and tries to soothe his neighbor's loneliness with a groping touch. For both of these rapacious characters, Shepherd sports prosthetic erections. When Nightingale's disappears at the end, it’s a sign that his life is draining away. 

The audacity of these maneuvers isn’t gratuitous. The production, enhanced by the poetry of Jennifer Tipton’s dappled lighting, heightens only what is already resident in the play. Meaning isn’t imposed. If this rendering of “Vieux Carré” offends, it does so in a manner that is close to the erotic-melancholy way Williams intended.

 --Charles McNulty

“Vieux Carre,” REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles. 8:30 p.m Tuesday-Saturday, 7 p.m Sunday. Ends Dec. 12. $45-$55. (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org  Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (no intermission).

Photos: Top: Scott Shepherd, Ari Fliakos. Bottom: Kate Valk. Credit: Steven Gunther / REDCAT

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