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Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis 2017
“The Magic of the Other”

Part 1

The Tennessee Williams Festival has returned for its second year here in St. Louis, this year themed around “The Magic of the Other”, highlighting the legendary playwright’s focus on people outcast from society in various ways. Alienation, loneliness, and the longing for meaningful human connection–no matter how fleeting that may be–are major themes of Williams’s work, and each of the productions I saw this year touched on those topics in one way or another.  From a humorous flight of fancy cabaret performance, to a dramatization of Williams’s own family relationships throughout his lifetime, this year’s festival, now concentrated solely in the Grand Center theatre district, brought to poignant life many memorable characters and their situations.

This is the first of two articles on the festival. In this one, I’ll talk about most of what I saw last weekend. In the second, I’ll highlight the two shows that are still running, and that St. Louis theatregoers still have a chance to check out. Now, on to the festival:

“Bertha In Paradise”

Curtain Call Lounge

May 3, 2017

Anita Jackson
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Bertha lives! And she sings!

This is the premise of the festival’s cabaret performance by  St. Louis Theater Circle Award nominee Anita Jackson, whose heartbreaking performance in the short play “Hello From Bertha” as part of The St. Louis Rooming House Plays was a highlight of last year’s festival. This year, the whole three-woman cast of that show was back on stage to start off this year’s festival, and the undisputed center of attention is Jackson’s bawdy, energetic, witty, and expertly sung performance as a newly energized Bertha.

Last time we saw Bertha, she was on her deathbed in the brothel where she worked, being tended to by her friend and colleague Lena (Maggie Wininger) and her boss, Goldie (Donna Weinsting). This year, in an inventively crafted cabaret performance, Goldie plays host and lets us know that, contrary to what last year’s play may have suggested, Bertha didn’t die, and now she’s back with all her style, verve, and attitude to sing a collection of jazz and blues songs and engage in a blatant flirtation with her stagehand (Joel King), and to occasionally sneak off behind the curtain with him. There was also a special appearance by Wininger, whose pregnancy has been cleverly written into her character’s story. “Remember,” Goldie reminds the audience. “It’s been a year.”  Wininger spent most of the performance seated on one side of the stage, knitting baby clothes and reacting to performances, as both Bertha and Goldie sang songs and engaged in something of a battle for the attentions of the stagehand.  Jackson was the obvious star, showing off her impressive comic skills on raunchy, innuendo-laden songs like “My Handy Man” and “If It Don’t Fit Don’t Force It”; and her astounding emotional and vocal range on classics like “The Very Thought Of You”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, and the poignant “Paradise”. Weinsting also sang well, getting laughs with the hilarious “Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage”, and dueting with Jackson on “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues”. Jackson, Weinsting, Wininger, and King all joined together at the end of the performance to lead the audience in singing the old standard “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love”. It was a fun evening, and a great way to start off the festival.

“St. Louis Stories”

Directed by Tom Mitchell

The .Zack

May 6, 2017

Staged by a group of theatre students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “St. Louis Stories” was a dramatization of several short stories and poems that Williams wrote before gaining notoriety as a playwright. Set in and around St. Louis, these stories also reflect his recurring themes of loneliness and alienation. The stories included “An Afternoon Off For Death”, in which an overworked shoe factory employee reflects on making the most of his opportunity to take an afternoon off on the occasion of his supervisor’s death. There’s also “Useless”, in which a middle-aged married woman imagines herself ill so that she can be visited by a handsome young doctor, to the annoyance of her husband. The others range from the bleak tale of two poets “Pack of Cigarettes”, the wistful, sad, and occasionally bitter “Ate Toadstools, But Didn’t Quite Die”, about a lonely single woman who is haunted by memories of a violent man from her past; to the more upbeat “The Age of Retirement”, which follows a 70-year-old retired clergyman’s moving to St. Louis to start a new life. There’s also a group reading of the poem “Middle West” in which the cast members read lines from papers that they then threw down onto the stage or into the audience. It was a fascinating collection of stories, giving insight into life in St. Louis during Williams’s time here, and also into Williams’ own growth as a developing writer. This production featured  strong performances from its entire ensemble–Joi Hoffsommer, J.W. Morriseette, Ann Marie Morrissette, Yvon Streacker, sara Freedland, and Kyle A. Thomas.

 Deseo

by Raquel Carrió

Directed by Raquel Carrió and Flora Lauten

The Marcelle Theatre

May 5, 2017

Deseo (“Desire) is an ambitious, inventively staged Spanish-language adaptation of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire that adapts the characters and situations to reflect Cuban-American culture. It’s a minimalist staging, with very little in the way of set, and the mood is set mostly by way of Richard Rodgríguez’s fantastic lighting design, and Hector Aguero Lauten’s evocative music.  The story is essentially the same as Streetcar, but with the plots pared down to the essential elements to highlight the emotion and relationships, and a few elements have been changed to reflect the updated characters. For instance, Santiago (Carlos Caballero) and his best friend Miguel (Jorge Luis Álvarez) play pool here instead of poker like their Streetcar counterparts, Stanley and Mitch. There are stunning performances from Ana Sobero and Lilliam Vega as sisters Estrella and Blanca, and both have excellent, volatile chemistry with Caballero’s possessive, confrontational Santiago. There are some excellent, poignant moments between Vega and Álvarez as well, and Ivanesa Cabrera also turns in a strong performance and Estrella and Santiago’s neighbor and building owner, Vecina.

The staging here is particularly dynamic and intimate. The lack of a set and emphasis on movement highlights the extreme emotion of this piece. Although sometimes it was a little difficult following the action and having to constantly look at the translations projected on the side wall at the Marcelle Theatre, this didn’t really detract from the performance. This was an excellent production, bringing all the intensity of Streetcar to a new setting and language.

Tennessee Williams Tribute: “The Magic of the Other”

Curtain Call Lounge

April 7, 2017

This was the official closing night of the festival, even though there was still one more show to debut, and two productions carrying on after it closed. Before the Closing Night party at the Curtain Call Lounge, though, several notable St. Louis performers gathered to read  selections from Williams’s works and sing songs from the middle years of the 20th Century. There was even an aria from Andre Previn and Philip Littell’s opera of A Streetcar Named Desire, with soprano Deanna Breiwick giving an expressive performance as Stella. The evening’s highlights also included a reading by Jeremy Lawrence from Williams’s “Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens”,  a song-and-dance duet by father and daughter Lara and Elizabeth Teeter on “Paper Moon”, Michael James Reed reading from Williams’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and to close out the evening, the outstanding Anita Jackson returning to sing “Paradise” once again.

Ensemble 2.0 

Directed by Richard Chapman

The .Zack

April 8, 2017

This show, produced by Francesca Williams and featuring a small ensemble of talented performers, told the story of Tennessee Williams and his family by way of letters they wrote to one another throughout their lives. Here, Williams’s longtime agent Audrey Wood (Kari Ely) narrated the story starting with Williams’s parents, focusing on his mother Edwina (Angelica Page), and her relationship with her three children–Rose (Bridgette Bassa), Tom (Paul Cereghino), and Dakin (Ben Watts), as they grow up in St. Louis and then live out the rest of their lives, as Tom becomes the famous playwright Tennessee Williams, and as his family relationships and interactions influence his own life and work.

This is a fairly straightforwardly staged production with minimal set–in fact, it’s performed on the set of Small Craft Warnings–and with original music by Tor Hyams and Lisa Rothauser that helps set the mood. The performances are engaging, and I found myself invested in the story even though it was essentially a staged reading. Overall, this was a fascinating look at Williams’s life and his relationships with the various members of his family.

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