Tennessee Williams is always way out on there on high wire. Maybe that's part of his staying power; he takes chances. But it doesn't make life easier on those who set out to bring his characters from page to stage. How, for instance, is one to approach The Rose Tattoo? It's such an odd combination of comedy and melodrama.
Serafina Delle Rose, a Sicilian widow who lives in a Gulf Coast village in the 1930s, is the central character. In fact, she is almost never out of the spotlight. She is passionate, deluded, hysterical, proud, stubborn and, often, ridiculous. If we don't laugh at her; at least some of the time, the play makes no sense. But, if we laugh at her essence -- at the authenticity of her feelings -- the play falls off its high wire. All is lost.
Shelley Poncy, in John Grimsley's recent production at Le Petit, solved this delicate problem in much the same manner that Alexander the Great dealt with the famous Gordian knot; she simply became Serafina. It was a joy to watch.
The story has two basic strands. One is Serafina's struggle to accept her daughter's coming of age. The other is more complicated. It involves Serafina's illusions about her dead husband -- and the way her sense of her own worth is tied up in that illusion. Her "glory" as a woman has to do with the sexual combustion she shared with this gypsy/Prince Charming of a man. However, as we learn, he brought his fire to other women as well. An amorous gypsy he was, but no Prince Charming. Real love comes to Serafina in the unglamorous form of Alvaro Mangiacavallo, "the grandson of the village idiot," the "eater of horses." It comes not with the heady fragrance of attar of roses, but with the humble odor of hay and manure. Stripped of all the exotic lyricism, The Rose Tattoo is a fable about the nature of love. If La Fontaine had written it, the title might be "The Horse Eater and the Rose."
Michael Arata gave us a boisterous, ingratiating Mangiacavallo that made Serafina's dilemma -- as well as her eventual reawakening -- believable. Mary Rennekamp's Rosa, the daughter, was charming and plucky. James Mykris showed the likable earnestness of Jack Hunter, Rosa's sailor boyfriend.
Luis Barroso, Sharon Clement and Adella Gautier (as a witch and a stogie-smoking, tough-guy salesman!) were among the notable supporting players. Daniel Kahn provided an evocative underscoring on accordion. Bill Walker designed the effective abstract set.
Concurrently, over at Le Chat Noir, Pat Bourgeois and Dane Rhodes were creating late-night havoc with I Didn't Raise You That Way. Bourgeois wrote the play, a comic confection that deals with a young novelist trying to keep her mother and aunt in the dark about a novel she's written, since they appear as characters in it. Rhodes directed -- though a more accurate term might be "deconstructed" -- the production, which bore a relation to the text not unlike chopped meat bears to sirloin: all the same stuff is there, but it now can get pushed into a hundred different forms. It got pushed all right.
The writer was played by the ever-buoyant Lara Grice, who bobbed charmingly to the surface each time the text was capsized by a veritable tempest of contretemps and confusions (including that great "no-no" that the English call "corpsing," or laughing out of character). The mother and aunt were Roch Eshelman and Rudy Rasmussen in drag, lovely old biddies both. They stepped into the parts on short notice, and it became standard practice, to press-gang a member of the audience to act as prompter, since the actors invariably lost their way in the script.
By the end of the play, when a flaming queen of a society editor had been played by three different actors in succession (including Jason Knobloch, the tech director), no one onstage or off seemed quite sure where we had drifted to -- but, by this time, it was nearing midnight, everyone had had a drink or two more than they intended, and a mood of genial nuttiness seemed just the thing.
Everyone clearly had a good time in this free-for-all, anything-goes atmosphere, which benefited enormously from the cabaret intimacy of the Chat. Sometimes the show was intentionally funny. Sometimes, it was unintentionally funny. Sometimes, it fell flat. But not often and not for long.
In the end, I Didn't Raise You That Way -- at least in this incarnation -- was like one of those anecdotes you stop telling in mid-sentence, because it mostly depends on the mood of the moment. Like they say, you just had to be there.
- Family affair: Lara Grice and Rudy Rasmussen charmed their way through Pat Bourgeois' often- outrageous new work, I Didn't Raise You That Way, at Le Chat Noir.