Once this house was alive, it was occupied once. In my recollection it still is but by shadowy occupants like ghosts. Now they enter the lighter areas of my memory. —Tennessee Williams, Vieux Carré
The Wooster Group’s version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, now at the REDCAT in LA is surprisingly revealing, both on behalf of Williams and the Wooster Group itself. The form of Williams’ uneven memory play brings out many of the most brilliant themes, devices, and resonances, both for Williams and the Group.
Vieux Carré was recently claimed by historians to date back much further than initially expected. Although Williams polished the play off and produced it for the first time in 1977, the notes, sketches, and drafts can be seen dating back to the period when Williams was living the story in a French Quarter boarding house in the early 1930s. In other words, the play is a filtration of raw memory, refined over decades, and revised with experience, maturity, a bit of cynicism, and hindsight. What a rare opportunity it is to access memory in this way, whether ours or someone else’s.
And it’s exactly this lengthy incubation process that makes Vieux Carré so uneven as a play. The Writer (Williams’ avatar) seems to grow from closeted greenhorn to over-sexed and exhausted man in a matter of acts for the audience and months in the world of the play. It’s as though Williams translated a piece of his sixty-something self to the arc of his twenty-something self, almost as if he has condensed the life of all his memory plays into one series of dramatic action. It’s confusing, disjointed, episodic, by all accounts a bad Tennessee Williams play. But it also contains some of his most potent lyricism and concentrated impressions of the city he loved so much, and it features multiple Tennessee Williamses—permutations of his young self set upon by layer after layer of an aging, less successful playwright.
Leave it to the Wooster Group, then, to exploit this point and bring the piece a wealth of new meaning, sympathy, and power, Employing techniques they’ve used in past productions, this version is one of the most amazing interpretations of how and why we remember, beyond the playtext. Their main theme is a sense of ghosting, haunting—words that they could easily use to replace an empirical sense of memory. So it’s inevitable that Williams knew a character like the Nightingale, an old queen, slowly dying of TB, or Tye, a homophobic (and of course curious) strip club barker and junkie in the boarding house. But it’s also clear, with the help of Scott Shepherd’s brilliant turn as both characters, that they are aspects of Williams himself—how these men-turned-memories became a piece of the playwright. Or, one could argue at the very least, that these memories haunt the playwright constantly. Scenes occur with characters who aren’t physically present, with characters who never existed, and sometimes with doubles of characters, a surplus of memory. Kudos to Andrew Schneider’s video design and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting to help this ethereal feel. Video screens contain simple white curtains, gently billowing with the breeze, and rain is projected onto the characters as static, a televisual presence of absence.
Watching the play, I was transported to my own memories of earlier Wooster productions: the plasma TVs on beams, fragmenting the body in To You, the Birdie! and cueing physical action in Poor Theatre, the layering and mixing of live and recorded on televisions, mixing the performance and past art as in Hamlet. It became clear to me that all of the Wooster productions are investigating the nature and complexities of memory, remembering, and, vitally, recounting and retelling. To use Vieux Carré makes this painfully obvious—and I don’t mean this in either a laudatory or derogatory sense. If anyone can get away with superficiality in presentation, it’s these artists.
As always, there’s way too much meat to chew on here. I am constantly frustrated and thrilled by the infinite wealth of ideas that speed through my mind when thinking about the Wooster Group (good thing they’re in my dissertation!—oy). I get a little overly excited: driving home, I went on an unsolicited diatribe to my car-mate(/prisoner) about Why would anyone in their right mind want to stage naturalist performance when that is possible?! Why would people want to watch it when they could be engaging with this?! WHY?!
But to leave you, I’ll start at the beginning, as the wonderful Ari Fliakos sits at his keyboard, attempting to begin a chronicle of his time in the French Quarter, listening to the bickering of the landlady (Kate Valk) and Nursie (Kaneza Schaal). The three characters are all present on stage and on screen, but as they set the scene, it becomes somewhat noticeable that the audience’s eyes and ears cannot be trusted: the image on the video screen is not the live stage action, the sound, is not coming from the actors’ mics. Our impression of what’s happening—filtered through the Wooster Group’s collaboration, through the text, through the muck of forty years of separation and consideration, through Tennessee Williams’ experiences—is unreliable, untenable. But it certainly does haunt.