Girls Town :: @ the 8th Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival

by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 1, 2013

Ptown became Girls Town this past weekend - at least women as imagined by Tennessee Williams. EDGE was on hand for the 8th annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival and filed this report.

The female characters in Tennessee Williams' plays have a beguiling effect on the psyche. And they were in ample display at this past weekend's Provincetown Williams Theater Festival - running the gamut from tarnished divas to disheveled alcoholics -- freely sharing their private agonies, graphic sexual appetites, and buffooneries; it's easy to want to be overt about one's own.

Due to the compact nature of the Festival (the eighth) over four days, it is impossible to see everything. The varied program included full-length plays ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," and a reprisal of "Kingdom of Earth"); one-acts ("Slapstick Tragedy: The Mutilated," "At Liberty," "Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!"); even a world premiere of a work-in-progress, ("Curtains for the Gentleman"). And that doesn't include a plethora of mixers, parties, dinners, musical entertainers, and one-acts by Gertrude Stein and Jane Bowles. (Below is a quick look at some of what I did see.)

Chorus Girls

After reading a posthumous collection of Williams' plays, edited by Thomas Keith (who served the Festival as a consulting dramaturg), curator/impresario David Kaplan discovered a motif threaded through several of Williams' early plays: the character of the chorus girl.

Yet "The Chorus Girl Plays," as presented at Paramount at the Crown and Anchor with a cast from Danzloop Chicago under Paula Frasz' choreography and Robert Chevara's direction, failed to elevate these three early works (written between 1935-1941) beyond their youthful and prurient origins.

Part of the failure may have been the decision to cast professional dancers - five woman and two men - who were untrained as actors. The delivery was frequently inaudible and flat. And while the plays themselves reveal shreds of brilliance, they are more studies rather than fully developed works. As Jef Hall-Flavin, the Festival's artistic director put it, these early works are "scenes - more like acorns, but not the tree."

And yet, there is more love in them than in many of Williams' other works. Perhaps with more rehearsal time - director Robert Chevara is correct that there is much poetry contained within - they will be worthy of reconsideration.

A highpoint of the production was the appearance of Lefty Lucy, a burlesque queen extraordinaire. She burst on stage before the final curtain and, in the true spirit of all that is suggested but never fulfilled, she shimmied a cheeky routine that brought the house down.

Slapstick divas

Gifford House Inn on Carver Street was the venue for Williams' risky - and risqu - "Slapstick Tragedy: The Mutilated." Written in 1966, the one act (part of a double-bill) ran only seven performances on Broadway before closing. Revived under Cosmin Chivu's direction, with audiences being led to follow the action from backyard, to a porch, to a downstairs barroom, the production was nothing short of brilliant.

Featured was Mink Stole (a key player in John Waters' early films), and Penny Arcade (the Downtown Manhattan performance artist and political activist). It re-opens at New Ohio Theatre on Christopher Street, New York, from Nov. 1-24, 2013. Fate will be the final arbiter here, but we may yet see a revival of this bawdy tale back on Broadway.

And what a bawdy tale it is, indeed. Set at The Silver Dollar Hotel on South Rampart Street in New Orleans, we meet Celeste (Penny Arcade) a woman of ill-repute with a taste for cheap California Tokay wine and an ample set of bosoms ("Go ahead and touch 'em," she proposes, hoisting her breasts upwards with outstretched palms. "They ain't soap bubbles.") But she gets no takers. She is hoping to win back the favors of her wealthy tight-wad friend, Trinket (Mink Stole), a resident of the hotel, who harbors a secret "mutilation" that only Celeste is privy to.

A chorus interrupts the action with perverse Christmas carols ("I think the strange, the crazed, the queer/Will have their holiday this year"), and a three piece band, led by Jesse Selengut, who serenades the audience with tunes from the jazz era. But it's the interplay between Celeste and Trinket (who eventually reconcile their differences) that steals the show. They take the audience on a merry romp, with moments of bathos, lewdness, violent outbursts and crude jokes reminiscent of Stephen Daedalus' mythic journey into Dublin's Night Town, a red-light district, from James Joyce's "Ulysses." When we finally arrive at the end of this hellish romp, we are filled with triumph and despair, having witnessed the shredding and ultimate refastening of the bonds of friendship and humanity.

Haunting drama

Last year, the highlight of the Festival was the appearance of a South African troupe, under Fred Abrahamse's direction, that startled audiences with a riveting production of "Kingdom of Earth," reprised this year with the same cast, but at a more suitable location, Provincetown Theater. That same venue served as the site of "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," another haunting drama (revived off Broadway with Olympia Dukakis by the Roundabout Theater in 2011 to mixed notices).

In "Milk Train," as Flora "Sissy" Goforth, Jennifer Steyn moved the audience through a range of emotions as she revealed the depths of her sexual appetites and her vanities, not to mention her penchant for cruelty and dissipation. It was a bravura performance.

Particularly notable was the use of the stage assistants, played by Nicholas Dallas and Roelof Storm, who, in the tradition of the kabuki theater, served to keep the play's action moving while remaining visibly invisible. Williams, who was attracted to Japanese theater and to experimenting with theatrical forms, incorporated this into the script, but the play is rarely presented this way.

Mississippi Songbird

Festival theatergoers were treated to the multi-talented songstress Eden Brent, who performed two nights at the Surf Club, a spacious bistro adjacent to MacMillan Wharf. Sassy, down home, with a whiskey-smooth voice that belted out blues numbers, Brent told tales of Mississippi, Tennessee Williams' birthplace. Her constellation added sparkle to an already luminous Festival.


According to Festival board president Patrick A. Falco, increased numbers of theatergoers arrived in Provincetown this year, necessitating the addition of performances to accommodate the demand. Several productions were sold out.

In eight seasons, the Festival has become part of Provincetown's cultural landscape with plans afoot for next September with the theme "Tennessee Williams and His Circle of Friends."

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.