Tennessee Williams and Yukio Mishima: The 14th Annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, Part 1
Where can you find performances featuring puppets, a RuPaul’s Drag Race star, and jello? The 14th Annual Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, of course! From a puppet-show version of a world premiere Tennessee Williams play to a pumpkin-destroying performance of a Yukio Mishima kyogen play, this season’s festival featured an incredibly exciting and diverse experience. This is my fourth year in attendance, and although I have always appreciated the hard work that David Kaplan and his team put into curating the festival’s program each year, the daring choices have often resulted in a combination of breathtaking highs and doldrum lows. The overall quality of this year’s festival stands out, especially in combination with the variations in genre and theatrical mediums included within it. As in the past, I will take you through each day of my festival experience, including performances that were not actually plays, so that you can the full range of events featured in the festival’s program.
The Lady Aoi / Yukio Mishima / Abrahamse and Meyer Productions / Cape Town, South Africa
My first play of the festival was the Abrahamse and Meyer Productions presentation of Yukio Mishima’s The Lady Aoi, translated by Donald Keene. Mishima and Williams were friends and Williams’s interest in Japanese iconography (which is, honestly, often Orientalist in nature) can be seen in the sheer number of kimonos he sprinkles throughout his work as much it can in the Kabuki stagehands present in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. The relationship between these two men was highlighted by plays that showed both Williams and Mishima engaging with the lengthy theatrical history of Japan. Lady Aoi is a contemporary Noh play, and so it was nice to begin my festival with Mishima’s version of this incredibly revered form of Japanese theatre. Noh is a highly stylized genre that has a fixed set design and series of costumes and masks. A program note helpfully informed an audience unfamiliar with this form that Noh theatre is not about action, but instead focuses on the concepts of stillness, meditation, memory, and community.
In this production, festival favorite Marcel Meyer appeared in stunning costumes he designed for the occasion. Lady Aoi was performed at the Provincetown Theater in rep (meaning in a scheduled rotation) with The Night of the Iguana, meaning that director Fred Abrahamse’s set served double duty. Meyer’s entrance across the porch mirrored the traditional Noh entrance down the hashigakari, the entrance bridge of a Noh stage, and the long sleeves of his white nurse’s garment had hints of the long fabric utilized in Noh costumes to emphasize movements and gestures. Meyer and fellow performer Justin Chevalier did not wear masks to cover their faces, but they did stylize their movements and voices in ways that revealed Noh influences. The main stylistic element of the set was the Lady Aoi herself, a human-sized puppet that lay reclined on the bed at the start of the piece only to rise up very satisfyingly later on in the short piece. Abrahamse and Meyer can always be relied on to create gorgeous stage pictures, and this piece was no exception. Meyer also managed to bring out the comedy in the style and beauty of this story of a jealous spirit (Meyer) who wants to attract a grieving husband’s (Chevalier) attention away from his possessed wife, Lady Aoi (the puppet). Although Chevalier was clearly trying to achieve the same level of high style in his performance, he could not quite jump over the bar Meyer’s effortless performance set, which detracted from the coherence of the overall piece. But the creativity shown in Lady Aoi was an auspicious sign of things to come.
The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers / Tennessee Williams / Spooky Action Theater / Washington, D.C.
I love puppets, but I know that not everyone does. When I sat down on the wooden platform in the middle of the Wa Garden in front of a small puppet stage, I did not know what to expect from this unpublished Williams play. But the minute Spooky Action Theater began, I was hooked! Performers Dylan Arredondo, Melissa Carter, and Jared H. Graham, under the brilliant direction of Natsu Onoda Power, brought the energy of children’s theatre performers to their serious skills as puppeteers. The combination was a delightful production of Williams’s adaptation of the tale of Japanese Emperor Nijo (Arredondo), a poet at heart, who will only marry a woman who can write a poem worthy of commemorating the beauty of the orange blossoms before they fall. Williams’s concerns with poetry and flowers are recognizable even in this play set in Japan, and this company did a wonderful job of honoring the feel of Williams’s language even with a comedic piece performed with puppets. This was the world premiere Williams play of the festival, and Spooky Action Theater gave us a production that shows why premiering these plays now is a worthy and exciting theatrical choice.
The progression of the puppet artistry was particularly brilliant, with the story beginning on a two-dimensional stage with two-dimensional renderings of all of the characters, almost in a shadow-puppet tradition. It brought to mind images of the Indonesian puppet tradition known as wayang kulit. As the play progressed, the puppets became more three-dimensional and grew in size. The two-dimensional puppets were replaced by small rod puppets, with three-dimensional faces, reminiscent of the Indonesian puppets of wayang golek. Eventually the characters grew until they culminated in full-sized, three-dimensional painted faces that the actors used without any need of the rest of the puppets’ bodies. I was as astonished at the artistry of the material aspects of this performance as I was with the skilled performances by the actors. I want to commend Power’s ability to lead her talented actors through this complex dance of props and storytelling to produce this unusual play in a way that seems true to both Williams and her own company’s work. This production was one of my festival highlights, and I wish I had time to see it again to catch even more of the brilliant touches layered into the performance. I hope that Spooky Action Theater comes back to future festivals, as I would love to see their interpretations of other plays.
The myth of Phaedra’s love for her stepson Hippolytus provides the basis for Mishima’s The Lighthouse. Performed outside with a stunning vista overlooking the harbor and, of course, a lighthouse, Laurence Kominz’s translation allowed Mishima’s language to wash over the audience. I saw this production as the sun was setting around young naval officer Noboru (Sam Hamashima) and his fractured family. Noboru and his sister, Masaka (Haley Sakamoto), had a good rapport and I their relationship set the tone for the rest of what follows. Unfortunately, this nuanced relationship did not exist for the crucial pairing of the play: Noboru and his stepmother, Isako. Lya Yanna’s portrayal of Isako was very proper grounded but lacked any sign of desire for her stepson. Hamashima’s Noboru played this relationship as best her could, but he did not have much to work with in this sense. The play was the most successful when the whole family was on stage together, with the addition of the patriarch Yukichi, played by Yoshiro Kano.
Despite this shortcoming in a crucial part of the play’s overall arc, mother nature provided some impressive tension of her own accord! Clouds gathered as the play drew near its conclusion, and the rain began to fall lightly. After a brief pause to rescue an antique kimono from the water by taking it offstage, the play continued as audience members took out umbrellas and raincoats. With this addition, the play’s characters (and actors) not only had to overcome their romantic feelings and the moral impropriety associated with them, but also the impending downpour that threatened all involved. This created a unique kind of dramatic tension that drew the audience together in our desire for the play to be allowed to finish! As Noboru was about to tell his father, Yukichi, why he has written his stepmother’s name in the margins of his school book, he declared, “I have everything under control,” at which point the skies opened. It was an amazingly powerful, and ironic, moment, but it also meant that the performance had to end about five minutes before the final lines could be spoken. Although I will likely never forget this performance of The Lighthouse, the most dramatic moment was not fully created by director Benny Sato Ambush, whose production would not have been as memorable without the assistance of the weather.
And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens… / Tennessee Williams / EgoPo Classic Theater / Philadelphia, PA
After somehow making it from one end of Provincetown to the other in the rain, I was relieved to see the welcoming space that EgoPo Classic Theater had created within the room of The Provincetown Inn. I have routinely loved the work that EgoPo has brought to the festival over the years, so I had high expectations for this production of one of my favorite one-acts. I am so happy to say that this piece exceeded even my hopes and dreams for what this show can be and do. Candy Delaney requires an actor who has the vulnerability and strength that is shown in Williams’s female characters, but also make the transition smoothly between the man we see bring Karl home to his house before he reappears as Candy. The moment Rob Tucker set foot in the room, I knew this would be the case. Tucker’s humor, sensitivity, and authenticity as Candy remained consistent throughout the show in a way that highlighted the continuity Williams has written into the character, which few actors achieve.
The fact that here Candy is a person of color, which makes perfect sense for a New Orleans setting, also adds layers to the violence and vulnerability Candy faces in the play. This color-conscious casting also extended to the other queens who eventually come to Candy’s aid, with great performances by Kerry Jules as Alvin Krenning and Charlie Barney as Jerry Johnson, which created a more diverse representation of the queer community that Williams wrote into this play alone. Although Williams did not envision this kind of casting, I applaud Savadove’s excellent decision to tell this version of the story, which is absolutely in keeping with the spirit of the play. Indeed, the one casting choice I questioned was that of Nick Ware as Karl. Although Ware’s performance was the most convincing Karl I have seen, with his meanness balanced out with genuine curiosity and a bit of stupidity, Ware is not quite the imposing physical presence that the part requires. Karl must be strong enough to be genuinely scary while remaining sexy, enough so that we understand why Candy keeps this dangerous and rude man around: she must be attracted to him. This chemistry existed to a degree, but Ware’s Karl was not quite physically dangerous enough (which is such an odd problem to have to articulate) for this dynamic to be completely successful. And yet, this production held together beautifully overall, and was another of my festival highlights!