Have you ever looked at a particularly detailed statue of the human form and wanted it to come to life? The theatricality of this fantasy has been explored from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale through present day “living statue” performers on the streets of many cities. This theme takes on new significance in Tennessee Williams’s one-act play A Cavalier for Milady, where a young girl’s repressed sexual desires play out in a fantasy centered around a statue of Vaslav Nijinsky. Nance is forced to dress in a childlike fashion and stay inside, but she cannot be so easily deterred. This is one of my favorite Williams plays, as it is emotionally and dramaturgically beautiful, and yet I have yet to see it performed. It is almost never staged. Luckily for me (and all of us, really), White Horse Theater Company is mounting the show for a short run at the famed Gramercy Park venue The Players, beginning February 7th.
In preparation for this exciting run, I sat down at the historic Players Club to talk about the delightful and scandalous aspects of this play with White Horse Artistic Director Cyndy A. Marion, who also directs this production. I have always been greatly impressed with the Williams plays staged by White Horse, as they reveal a nuanced understanding of Williams’s omnivorous attitude towards genre — something that often trips up companies who want to place him firmly in one category. Aside from Marion’s talent, the company benefits from the skill of Managing Director and Dramaturg Vanessa Bombardieri, who serves as this production’s Associate Director.
When asked why she chose this particular play Marion says, “I had read [A Cavalier for Milady] a while back. I don’t remember exactly when, but I came across that at the same time as [A Perfect Analysis Given By a] Parrot and I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow and some of the shorter pieces. It took me a long time to figure out how to realize them, because I didn’t want to do an evening of one-acts with some very bare-bones set that didn’t really serve the pieces. It just dawned on me that this club [The Players] would be a really interesting space to do these shorter chamber plays. So we did I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow up in the Great Hall. […] Then we went into Parrot. I loved working on that too; I loved the element of the grotesque, and the stylized precision of it. It’s almost like a piece of music, but with such physicality. So then I just thought, let’s try A Cavalier for Milady.”
One of the elements of this play that makes it so interesting is the wonderful blend of comedy and pathos, which is sometimes a tricky balance in Williams’s work. In my opinion, companies have just recently become comfortable with exploring the kind of “slapstick tragedy” present in works like The Gnädiges Fräulein. And yet A Cavalier for Milady has clear ties to the subject matter of Williams’s earlier, more realistic plays — despite the addition of exaggerated elements. This play does not consist of the dimly lit memories of The Glass Menagerie, and yet, as Marion says, it “is the Williams story perfected. In Nance you’ve got elements of Catherine in Suddenly Last Summer, Rose, obviously, his whole life he’s writing about Rose. And the play is about madness, and about what is madness, and who really is mad. Is Nance really mad or is she just different? Are the society characters really mad?”
Madness is, of course, a common theme in Williams, as is the focus on the vulnerable individual and/or outcast who is deemed “different” by a society who is shown to be oppressive. And yet there are still points of comedy in some of these plays, which can make staging them a delicate balance. Marion recalls, “I worked on a Clothes for a Summer Hotel, and I found that play…I really understood what he was trying to do with it, but I found it problematic to actually stage, because the audience didn’t know where to laugh. The way he sets it up he’s got people laughing and crying at the same character — but people don’t want to laugh at Zelda Fitzgerald, because she’s sick. So, in Cavalier, he very cleverly defines who to laugh at and who to cry with. In my opinion, what he was trying to achieve in that play really comes off in this play.”
This combination of exaggerated comedy and heart-wrenching pathos comes into play in scholarly discussions of the grotesque in Williams’s works, recently written about by noted Williams scholar Annette J. Saddik in her book Tennessee Williams and the Theatre of Excess. Dr. Saddik will be participating in a moderated talk-back after the performance on Thursday, February 8th. When asked about this work, Marion said, “I have read her book. I’m very influenced by it. I was really influenced on Parrot with the idea of really talking about the excessiveness of the grotesque — really exaggerating, making Bessie as big as you possibly can, and having her be incredibly vulgar, and spewing out. I don’t feel as much like we have to really focus on it, I feel like its implicit in A Cavalier for Milady just in the sense that this woman is masturbating in full view. I mean, that’s grotesque. Just the whole subject, and everything going on, the excessiveness is built into it. And we’re not playing the masturbating over the top — we’re being very honest and truthful with it, and I think she’s probably trying to hide it. But it’s all implicit in the story itself, in these things that are happening.”
Tickets for this exciting show are limited, so click here to purchase yours today! A Cavalier for Milady will run February 7–9th at The Players, 16 Gramercy Park South. (Please note that The Players has a dress code of business casual: no shorts, sneakers, t-shirts, or ripped jeans.) Special events include the the White Horse Theater Company’s 15th Anniversary Celebration, complete with live band, following the Wednesday, February 7th show, and the post-show discussion with Dr. Saddik on February 8th.