There was a ring of familiarity about this year's Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival theatrical offerings, and not always in a good way. The two "official" productions, A House Not Meant to Stand and The Glass Menagerie, both had been seen before, and recently: House last summer courtesy The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and Menagerie three years ago at this very festival. But 60th anniversaries being what they are, Menagerie returned. Neither was particularly remarkable, House because of its problematic (and unpublished) script, and Menagerie because of gaps in the staging and casting.
House endured other hardships: Patrick McNamara, cast as Cornelius -- that rarely used father figure in Williams' works -- left the production at the 11th hour. John Hammons rushed in to fill the void, and did so admirably. But calling this a "gothic comedy" is like calling a Neil Simon play a "schticky drama." The laughs were few and far between, despite sometimes overly labored attempts by supporting cast members Bob Edes and Leah Loftin. Director Lane Savadove created some nice stage moments, in particular a living room wall that gives way to a dining room. Regardless, you still have to wonder if the script is focused enough to bring this house to a larger stage. The second act all but falls apart with key characters disappearing, and the play just ends abruptly.
The Glass Menagerie came back around on us rather quickly, and director Perry Martin faced challenges from the outset. He raised eyebrows with the casting of musical-theater go-to Ann Casey as the domineering Amanda Wingfield, but it turned out to be a great choice. Casey's musicality worked in her favor; she half sang her lines, and elicited more sympathy for Amanda than most actresses can muster. But Justin Scalise as Tom and Ryan Reinike as the Gentleman Caller easily could have swapped roles; Scalise lacked the edge required for Tom, an edge Reinike has often displayed in previous works. (Reinike originally was a possibility for Tom but scheduling conflicts forced the switch.) And the staging, in the UNO Downtown Theatre, was beset by questionable lighting and acoustic choices. Intimacy is not one of the theater's strengths, and this production suffered for it.
With so much gothic angst hanging overhead, was it any surprise that the parodies -- Running With Scissors' Pussy on the House at Club 735 and Krewe Des Sept's reading of The Glass Mendacity at True Brew -- provided the breaths of fresh air? Maybe. When in doubt, it never hurts to laugh, and there's no bigger guaranteed laugh than a man in a dress.
Working with a script by Ryan Landry of Gold Dust Orphans company of Provincetown, Mass., co-directors Richard Read and Flynn De Marco juggle some bizarre rhythms with Pussy on the House. Long, dramatic passages challenged the comedic timing -- sometimes it worked brilliantly in a Ludlam-esque kind of way, sometimes it fell flat. But Brian Peterson as Maggie and De Marco as Brick provided a wonderful chemistry not often seen this month. If Rusty Tennant, in drag as The Colonel, could work on his modulation (his voice stays at 11), he'd be unstoppable. The play also produced the most amazing comedic moment in recent memory; see it to believe it.
The Glass Mendacity was arguably the most purely funny of the productions, and the upstart Krewe Des Septs would be well-advised to mount it as a full-fledged production next year. Then again, there was something doubly funny about watching Andrea Frankle Molina (as Maggie), Maureen Brennan (as Blanche) and Ann Mahoney (as Laura) tossing their Southern accents out into the ether instead of at each other. They stole the show, which is saying something, considering the strength of an ensemble cast featuring Carol Sutton, Randy Cheramie and Bob Scully.
But two of the more pleasant surprises came fittingly from unlikely sources. DRAMA! thrilled many with its modest production of Something Cloudy, Something Clear at Cowpokes. Director Luis Barroso cracked that he removed all the "cloudy" from the script and kept the "clear." I'm not so sure about that; it's still almost as fuzzy as House. But Michael-Chase Creasy, despite capturing all of Tennessee's early artistic conflict while offering little of his charisma, nevertheless brought warmth to his portrayal of the struggling young writer.
And instead of a man in a dress, ArtSpot Productions' Kathy Randels presented (most of the time) a woman in a suit with her homage to Williams in her solo outing, To Flee, Flee This Sad Hotel. Mixing Williams' memoirs with his scripts, Randels wove an emotional portrait of the man, tapping better than most into the turmoil that created his genius and his torment. Randels is one of this city's most gifted physical actresses -- it's almost impossible for her to sit still -- and she teases audiences with snatches of her singing talent. Randels and ArtSpot's collaboration created a fluid, concise and poetic look at this most complicated man.
- Maggie (Brian Peterson, right) tries to drag Brick (Flynn De Marco) back into the sack in Running With Scissors' production of Pussy on the House.