Entertainment » Theatre

Eight By Tenn

by Kilian Melloy
Sunday Sep 4, 2016
Michelle Dowd and Damon Singletary light up the stage in Zeitgeist's production of eight one-act Tennessee Williams plays, continuing through Oct. 8 at the Boston Center for the Arts
Michelle Dowd and Damon Singletary light up the stage in Zeitgeist's production of eight one-act Tennessee Williams plays, continuing through Oct. 8 at the Boston Center for the Arts  

Two young people (Rae Bell and Jake Orozco-Herman) fritter away some time while loitering on railroad tracks, faced by an uncertain future symbolized by a blank sky (as "white as paper" in the overtly symbolic one-act play "This Property Is Condemned." A tender but fretful lesbian love between employer (Karen Trachtenberg) and live-in secretary (Kelley Estes) peeks through the cracks of a comedy centering around power dynamics in "Something Unspoken." The fear of dying is outstripped by the even more intense fear of outliving one's usefulness in "The Unsatisfactory Supper."

These are just three of the eight seldom-seen one-act plays by Tennessee Williams that Zeitgeist Stage Company has assembled into a single production titled "Eight By Tenn." (Note: Though SpeakEasy Stage Company produced the similarly-titled "Five by Tenn" a decade ago, this collection does not repeat any of the Williams one-act plays included in that anthology presentation.)

The three entries mentioned above are among the most complete short plays selected for this absorbing production. Others feel more like sketches. "The Lady of Larkspur Lotion," in which the proprietrix of a boarding house, Mrs. Wire (Karin Trachtenberg) faces off with a tenant, Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore (Alexandra Smith, clad in a scorching red robe) who makes her living through prostitution (and sustains her life through delusions of wealth that's perpetually mere moments from arriving). Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore is overwhelmingly reminiscent of Blanche DuBois, as are several characters in these plays. Williams seems to write himself into this quotidian drama as a drunk writer (and fellow tenant) who charges into the room to demand that Mrs. Wire lay off. His defense of Mrs. Harwicke-Moore is eloquent, but his chivalry becomes suspect as the segment draws to a barbed close.

Another sketch is "A Perfect Analysis Given by A Parrot," in which two old friends -- or frenemies, had that word existed in William's time -- happen into a club, settle at a table, and start, with genteel manners, to tear into one another with calculated viciousness. (Alexandra Smith and Kelley Estes star here.) Just as broad and musing is "The One Exception," in which an old friend (Alexandra Smith) pays a visit to a shut-in (Karen Trachtenberg) being tended by a kindly caretaker (Kelley Estes) -- only, her motives are not rooted in love and concern, and far from being an exception, the visitor is just one more of an unsavory pack.

If the ghost of Blanche DuBois seems everywhere in these plays, she's nowhere more completely summoned than in "Portrait of a Madonna," in which a hotel resident named Miss Lucretia Collins (Alexandra Smith) has, over the years, become utterly consumed by a traumatic event from her youth and her long-unresolved feelings for a man who married someone else. She has no Stella to fall back on, and no Stanley Kowalski to torment her; instead, she has an audience of two, a sympathetic porter (Zach Winston) and a callow, cruelly amused elevator boy (Jake Orozco-Herman), to whom to pour out her stew of delusion and pain. Other Blanche-like figures in this clutch of one-acts feel like dry runs at the character, but this one feels like a deeply detailed and specific study.

If Kowalski is reincarnated anywhere here, it's with Winston's portrait of Archie Lee in "An Unsatisfactory Supper," one the most satisfying of these stories. Archie Lee is as unsympathetically pragmatic and self-absorbed as you could want from a certain stripe of aggressive masculinity; once a visit by his wife's Aunt Rose (Michelle Dowd) has stretched into months and Aunt Rose's cooking and mind have both begun to slip, Archie Lee, wary of being saddled with the elderly woman as she enters a potentially lingering end-stage of dementia, demands that Aunt Rose pack her bags and decide on which members of the extended clan she'll next impose herself on. Baby Doll (Rae Bell), his wife, is just as diplomatic as you'd expect someone named Baby Doll to be -- her "pussyfooting" enrages Archie Lee. As played by Dowd, Aunt Rose is the least Blanche-like of the Blanche-type characters; rather, she seems like a once-proudly self-sufficient woman now being eroded by age into a dependent, a decline that anguishes Aunt Rose as much as it inflames her niece's husband.

Another gratifyingly self-contained and self-propelled story is that of Mrs. Duvenet (Michelle Dowd) and her son Eloi (Damon Singletary) in "Auto-Da-Fe." A tale of sexual repression and its resulting madness, "Auto-Da-Fe" centers around an erotic photograph intercepted by Eloi, sent by a party whose gender is never specified to another, equally vague, party. This play, along with "Something unspoken," carries a gay vibe about it, and the play is brought to highly charged life by two outstanding performances. Elias Canetti could scarcely have written a more combustive drama.

Though the plays are variable (and the acting, also) this is a production worth seeing, partly because you might not get another chance to see these Tennessee Williams one-acts performed, and partly because the design is consistently impressive, from Matthew Good's detailed sound design to the painterly lighting by Erik Fox that transforms the simple set into an array of locales. Matthew Solomon's costumes are vividly colorful, underscoring the heightened nature of the plays themselves (though the wigs, and there are many wigs deployed here, are distracting at times).

"Eight by Tenn" continues at the Boston Center for the Arts through October 8. for tickets and more information, please visit http://www.zeitgeiststage.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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