@ 7th annual Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival
Three ingredients make the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival -- which just concluded its seventh season on September 24 -- an ongoing success: the strength of its creative and support staffs, an eclectic yet singular artistic vision, and the Provincetown community who embraces it.
Now add to that fourth: music, this year’s theme. The producers define music in its many forms, styles and melodies: the illimitable cadence of Williams’ hypnotic yet melodious poetic language; the incidental compositions or songs the playwright insisted be incorporated as crucial elements in his scripts; and the musicians themselves-from the five piece raucous Hot Tamale Brass Band from Boston, to other local and visiting performers and composers-all conspiring to bring a joyous cacophony to the shows.
Music finds its way - almost by osmosis -- into Williams’ works. As Festival curator and impresario David Kaplan explains, "that’s because Williams’ plays are set in New Orleans, the birthplace of American jazz."
"In New Orleans," Kaplan says, "every day’s a holiday; races and music mix together, particularly in the French Quarter, where Williams moved in 1939....music arrives uninvited: marching bands block the crosswalks; a lonesome piano calls from the back of an alley; rowdy parties in the Bourbon street joints echo down the narrow streets of the Vieux Carré."
Due to the compact nature of the festival -it runs over four days - it was impossible for me to attend all the shows. What follows are reflections of what I did attend.
Musical Dissonance: Mother-Son Relationships
Tennessee Williams repeatedly wrote about mother-son relationships, a theme found in three plays performed in Provincetown this year. The music in these plays could be best likened to the sounds that emerged from the trumpet of the late Miles Davis, who performed his jazz with heavy doses of dissonance.
I attended two productions: "Christine McMurdo-Wallis," a one-act, and "Kingdom of Earth," a full-length play. The music woven into all these plays accentuated the discord - and the search for harmony -between the characters onstage. (I did not attend the production of "The Glass Menagerie," the most famous of Williams’ mother-son relationship plays.)
"Auto-da-Fe," a one-act, superbly directed by Jef Hall-Flavin, was performed on the porch at Gifford House, while the audience sat inside a tent on lawn chairs. Written in 1941, it told the story of Eloi (pronounced El-wah) played by Ben Berry, and his mother Madame Duvenet, played by Christine McMurdo-Wallis. Eloi fixates on a letter containing a found pornographic photograph. Their banter is ripe with innuendo. Eloi makes allusions to gay sexual advances made by the owner of the letter whom he has sought out, confronted and rebuffed. He says he found these advances repugnant, but yet is also attracted to them. "And then the sender (of the letter) began to be ugly," Eloi exclaims. "Abusive. I can’t repeat the charges, the evil suggestions! I ran from the room!" But we soon realize these are the exhortations of Eloi’s self-loathing about their sexuality.
And then the rooming house is consumed in (the recorded sounds of) fire. The one-act ends, just as the Hot Tamale Brass Band emerges from the bowels of Gifford House and takes Ptown’s Carver Street by storm, replete with a costumed entourage carrying a black draped coffin.
The effect was riotous and jolting. It undercut the tragedy that had just been performed on the porch, and fulfilled the mission of music in the Williams’ play, namely that it play on, even during the darkest depths of despair, to move us past our petty meanderings.
Mississippi, by way of South Africa
Another play about mother-son relationships was the production of "Kingdom of Earth" that arrived to the Festival by way of Cape Town, South Africa. (Each year the Festival invites performers from around the world, including a production of "This Property is Condemned," which originated in Bergamo, Italy.)
"Kingdom of Earth" was performed in an unlikely venue: the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall on Jerome Smith Road in Ptown. To put it bluntly, the venue reeked of alcohol, mold and waste; but the production seemed to be enhanced by this.
Williams first conceived the drama as a short story while living in Provincetown in 1940, when he had fallen in love with Kip Kiernan, a young male Canadian dancer. By summer’s end that year, Kip broke off their affair and Williams hitched a ride to Mexico, when he heard a tale, recounted in the play, about a bridegroom who had married a prostitute. It was first produced on Broadway in 1968, renamed The Seven Descents of Myrtle."
As directed by Fred Abrahamse, the play grabbed hold of your throat and slowly, purposefully, squeezed your breath away. On a makeshift stage with just three players - Anthea Thompson as Myrtle, Marcel Meyer as Chicken, and Nicholas Dallas as Lot, the effect was riveting, frightening, and horrific.
When I chatted with Jef Hall-Flavin, the Festival’s executive director, he, too, shared this experience.
"It’s a risk we take," Hall-Flavin said. "Sometimes we get to see the productions before hand, but, in some cases, we don’t. In this instance, the risk paid off."
A new play: Gift of an Orange
While the VFW hall may have been a challenge, the Wa Garden in the rear of a building near Art House on Commercial Street was an inspiration as a venue choice. With the Trees of Heaven towering above the performance space, the setting was hushed, chilly in the afternoon breeze, but reminiscent of New Orleans’ garden district, or bayou country.
"Gift of an Orange," written by Charlene A. Donaghy, pays homage to Williams in the setting and tone, which tells of a young man, Taurean (Richard Caines) who wanders into the witchy den of Oshun (Dayenne C. Byron Walters), who uses her potions to lure men to her bed.
The music in this production was played by local players, including conga, recorder and ocarina. In language more stripped bare than Williams’ penchant for flourish and rhapsody, Ms. Donaghy nonetheless conveyed the struggles of superstitious folks who bond themselves to one another, only to realize that true love comes from a richer source, a source that encourages freedom.
Music, jams and more
The festival ended with "The Tennessee Williams Songbook," directed by David Kaplan, and, two evenings before, the blues guitar (with local musicians sitting in) by Terry "Harmonica" Bean, who traveled from Williams’ home state of Mississippi to hold court at the Surf Club, the lights of MacMillian Pier twinkling behind him.
There was, of course, more to see and to hear, and as the producers do their final tallies (most events were sold out, so the numbers should be impressive), they will soon realize they have grown considerably, have tackled their ambitions with humility, hard work, and the kindness of patrons, volunteers and sponsors.
One of those angels include the Sage Inn, which sponsored mixers, housed artists, and has once again generously, signed on to be the official headquarters of the festival next year when the theme will be Tennessee Williams and Women.
"We’re proud to have this role for the Tennessee Williams Festival," Cathy Nagorski, Sage Inn’s general manager, told me. "The staff is highly organized, talented and generous with their talent. They’re pros. It’s a thrill to work with them. We can’t wait for next year."
Tennessee Williams, if he were alive today, might define Nagorski’s reaction as exemplary of the "kindness of strangers." But it’s more than that. Because it’s Provincetown, it’s more about the kindness of neighbors.