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The first annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis took place last week in various locations in Grand Center and the Central West End. A celebration of the great American playwright who spent a significant part of his formative years in St. Louis, the festival was an impressive effort spearheaded by Executive Artistic Director Carrie Houk. Over several days, various performances, lectures, presentations and more were held, including an outdoor screening of the film A Streetcar Named Desire, a “Stella!” shouting contest, a bus tour of important Williams-related sites, and several informative lectures and readings.

Among the events I attended were a fascinating “Tennessee Williams 101” presentation by Augustin Correro, and a panel discussion comparing two plays that were both performed in conjuction with the festival, The Two-Character Play and The Glass Menagerie.  There was also an excellent tribute reading presentation, “Tennessee Williams: I Didn’t Go To the Moon, I Went Much Further” in which several local and national performers took turns reading from Williams’s plays and other writings, as well as singing songs written by him and his colleagues. The highlights of this evening for me were the essays, including one about actresses Williams worked with, read by Jeremy Lawrence, as well as one about Williams’ father read by Lisa Tejero, and one about his involvement with the Mummers theatre troupe in St. Louis in the 1930’s, read by Ken Page. Williams’ St. Louis years in the 1930’s seemed to be the major inspiration for most of the theatrical productions I saw, as well, including the previously reviewed The Glass Menagerie and two of the three shows I saw last week. Here are some short reviews:

The Two-Character Play (May 12)

Michelle Hand, Joe Hanrahan Photo by Ride Hamilton The Midnight Company

Michelle Hand, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Ride Hamilton
The Midnight Company

Presented by the Midnight Company and directed by Sarah Witney, The Two-Character Play stars local performers Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand as a brother and sister acting team whose personal relationship informs the play they perform. This production is given an extra degree of authenticity since it was performed at the Mummers Theatre, inside the Learning Center building (formerly the Wednesday Club) in the Central West End. This theatre hasn’t been renovated in years, and so it retains its atmosphere as an old, historic theatre. That works well for this play as the two leads find themselves abandoned by their company on the eve of a touring performance, stranded in this old theatre and deciding to try to make the most of their performance.

There’s a decidedly mysterious air to this play, as we’re not entirely sure what’s real and what isn’t, and the “play within a play” seems to reflect a great deal of the characters’ own relationship and background. In fact, the actors are called Felice (Hanrahan) and Clare (Hand), but so are the characters they play. The brother-sister dynamic also seems to be informed by Williams’ relationship with his own sister, which formed the inspiration for several of his works.

Hanrahan and Hand are well-cast, imbuing the flawed, bickering siblings with an underlying sense of connection and care. As the situation grows more and more unusual, and as Hand’s Clare begins to take charge and change the play as it goes along, the sense of a nebulous but inevitable conclusion builds, as does the odd sense of tension and affection between the characters. It’s a fascinating performance, played out on a vaguely cluttered set that contributes to the overall atmosphere of building chaos.

The Two-Character Play will continue its performances at Winter Opera St. Louis on The Hill on May 27 and 28, and June 3 and 4. I highly recommend checking it out.

A Perfect Analysis Given By a Parrot (May 13) 

Bob Harvey, Kelley Anderson Weber, Landon Tate Boyler, Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Peter Wochniak

Bob Harvey, Kelley Anderson Weber, Landon Tate Boyle, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Peter Wochniak

The new Curtain Call Lounge was the perfect setting for this short comedy, directed by Brian Hohlfeld, that gives us a glimpse into the life of two contentious traveling friends, Bessie (Kelley Anderson Weber) and Flora (Rachel Tibbetts) who have stopped in for a few drinks while in St. Louis for a convention. As they bicker and reminisce of days gone by, a singer (Landon Tate Boyle) serenades them and the audience with tunes from the era, and a nice waiter (Bob Harvey) brings drinks and joins in their banter.

This show was the first of two “time trip” performances I attended on the same night, and the setting really helped set the mood. The Curtain Call Lounge was set up as usual, with Bessie and Flora seated at one of the tall tables and Boyle singing on the stage. It was like being transported to 1930’s St. Louis with the audience as the “fly on the wall” witnessing the conversation, as Tibbetts’s more emotional Flora and Weber’s outwardly tougher Bessie express their loneliness and regret in various ways, along with the continuing hope of just being able to have a good time. They snark, they bicker, they laugh, and sometimes they even dance. Both actresses give excellent, well-realized performances, with Boyle in great voice as the suave singer and Anderson engaging as the waiter. It’s an alternately hilarious and poignant performance, set in the absolutely perfect venue.

The St. Louis Rooming House Plays (May 13)

roominghouse1

Peter Mayer, Photo by Ride Hamilton

Speaking of perfect venues and time trips, this fully immersive production at the historic Stockton House was perhaps the most extraordinarily unique theatrical presentation I’ve witnessed. Directed by David Kaplan with Brian Hohlfeld, this was a collection of plays written by Williams about various characters in a rooming house setting, and so the audience is taken on a tour, traveling from room to room and witnessing the action as well as stopping in the parlour at various moments for live musical performances of atmospheric songs of the period, with various cast members singing and musical director Henry Palkes on piano. It was all wondrously evocative, with a melancholy air as the characters we met expressed varying degrees of longing and regret.

Broken up into four groups based on the colors of the tags of the room keys they are given, the audience members start out in the parlor and are ushered in different orders to various rooms throughout the house. I was in the “gold key” group, and I’ll be reviewing the plays in the order I saw them. First, my group was taken upstairs for “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches”. We sat around the room as aging shoe salesman Charlie (Peter Mayer) lamented the passing of his era of sales, complaining to the somehwat brash younger salesman Bob Harper (Jared Sanz-Agero) about how much has changed. The overall air of sadness in this room was emphasized by B. Morgan Thomas as the Porter who only “spoke” by playing his saxophone with a bittersweet tone. Mayer’s performance was especially memorable, painting a vivid portrait of this career salesman who had lived his life on the road and whose best years were behind him. His collection of watches–awards for his work in previous years–served as a testimony to the glory years gone by.

From there, we were taken downstairs for “In Our Profession”, a short play about a needy, lonely actress (Julie Layton) and the two men (Ben Nordstrom, Christian Chambers) to whom she quickly grows attached. This, while still having that undertone of loneliness, was played more for laughs, with strong, believable performances from all three leads. After this, it was back to the parlor for some more singing, then for a brief interlude in the foyer as residents carried on a conversation on the stairs, then back upstairs for the heartbreaking “Hello From Bertha”, featuring Anita Jackson in an extraordinary performance in the title role. Bertha is bedridden in the brothel in which she has worked, supported by sympathetic colleague Lena (Maggie Wininger), and ranting to her boss, Goldie (Donna Weinsting) about her own regrets, and a lost love from her past. It’s obvious to everyone but Bertha that she is dying, and it’s devastating to watch. It’s a brilliant performance, with excellent support from Wininger and Weinsting.

Next, our group was led down the hall to another room, “The Pink Bedroom”, in which a young woman (Julia Crump) waits for the married man (Eric Dean White) with whom she has been carrying on an extended affair. This play has something of a surprise twist that changes the tone at the very end, although for the most part it’s again about loneliness and regret, as Crump’s character wishes for more appreciation from White, who has come to treat this relationship as more of a routine over the years. There’s no joy here. It’s all loss, jealousy, and regret, with strong performances by both Crump as the somewhat petulant mistress and White as the apathetic man.

After this play, we were then ushered down the steps–after another brief interlude witnessing a rooming house interaction–to finally wait in the foyer for the cast to descend the staircase for another soaring, wistful musical performance and “curtain call”. It was all so well-done that I truly felt for a few moments as if I had been transported to 1930’s St. Louis. The costumes (by Bonnie Krueger), the staging, and the room sets (designed by David Richardson) all lent an air of authenticity to the proceedings, and the sense of longing and regret permeated the entire evening. This was such an incredible experience, and I hope there will be a way for this to be staged again, either in this venue or elsewhere.

Overall, I would say that the first edition of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis was successful and extremely promising. It was a fitting celebration of Williams’s life and work, showcasing some truly excellent creative and dramatic talent.  Long may this festival continue!

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