Playwright Tennessee Williams wrote the truth as he saw it. By having the courage to share his own troubled personal life, he revolutionized American theater.To celebrate the 100th birthday of this prolific genius, the Washington Shakespeare Company has chosen two of his rarely staged one-acts that span his lifetime, and called it their Tennessee Williams Continuum. The contrast between the two one act plays is so striking it’s as if Portrait of a Madonna and The Gnadiges Fraulein were written by two different people. Thanks to WSC, both are superb theatrical gems, given beautifully integrated, inspired treatment, well worth seeing.
Written in 1941 and revised in 1944, Portrait of a Madonna reflects Post-World War II cynicism and nostalgia for a kinder, gentler time. Deeply personal, Williams zeros in on his memory of his abandoned mother and schizophrenic sister. Twenty years later, when his artistic vision had darkened, he wrote The Gnadiges Fraulein, an exaggerated satire making fun of everything he presents reverentially in Portrait and earlier plays. The Continuum makes a fascinating leap—all in one evening.
The director for Portrait of a Madonna, Lynn Sharp Spears, innovates by adding a slow-motion prologue, employing three actors who pantomine how Lucretia’s lover jilted her for another woman—the source for her deranged obsession. Sound designer David Crandall pipes in eerie electronic music and faint echoes of mad laughter at key points. The set painted blue with white clouds on the floor and walls, designed by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, represents a world turned upside-down. Williams was known for his theatrical build-ups. And Spears arranges for a great one with this dream-like prologue.
The character Miss Lucretia Collins, who is locked into a hellish memory that she relives repeatedly, is the fluttery, moth-like former Sunday School teacher that Williams later developed into Blanche Dubois. Lucretia Collins, (Annetta Dexter Sawyer) graciously invites us into her nightmarish world of genteel insanity. Sawyer, decked out in corkscrew, silver-gray curls and delicate, white lace (costumes by Susie Graham), delivers an incandescent, nuanced performance, at times flirtatious and funny, as if she is seducing everyone with a child-like purity into a kinder gentler lifestyle. “Mother will bring in something cool after while…..,” she purrs. Her long walk of humiliated rejection on a tree-less street past her two-timing, married lover’s house, is reinforced visually by subtle lighting, designed by Colin Dieck, that intensifies from soft white to glaring sunlight.
What Lucretia describes in her monologue is both humorous in its triviality; but sad in its momentous outcome of lonely desperation. When the officious nurse (Karin Abromaitis) and the gentle psychiatrist (Christopher Henley) come from the asylum, the scene unfolds like a replay from A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Porter is well-played as the compassionate foil by Slice Hicks. The Elevator Boy (Bob Sheire), more of a crass, oafish clown, comes across as the callous antithesis. He’s a cruel invader who calls Lucretia a freak, and pokes around for loose change or hidden money behind pillows. It makes sense when the porter observes that the outside world is the madder madhouse filled with “maniacs,” in contrast to Lucretia, who isn’t hurting anyone.
The style changes radically from nostalgic poetic drama to the hilarious horror of what Williams called “Slapstick Tragedy,” in The Gnadiges Fraulein, which translates from German as “Gracious Young Lady.” The results are Theatre of the Absurd personified, as if during the writing process, Williams was having side effects from hallucinogens.
Director Jay Hardee honors the change by setting a fast paced, wild ride into an animated cartoon for grotesque degenerates, and at the same time proves to be an inventive wizard by keeping a delicate balance between comedy and tragedy. McFadden’s set changes to lush tropical surreality. And an ultra-expressive slapstick style is sustained to the hilt by a dynamic, cohesive and talented cast, that draws upon the vaudevillian techniques of aiming gag lines straight-out to the audience from a thrust stage. Yet the characters, grotesques to be sure, are human nonetheless and there are some great moments that make this play emotionally involving.
Babbling like an idiotic Greek chorus on the sidelines, Polly (Mundy Spears), the headstrong, nutty society editor for the Cocaloony Gazette, risks bird attacks to scrounge for a feature story. The Cocaloony, an invented name for an unsavory, eye-gouging pelican, as played by Karin Abromaitis, comes across as a mutated, scrawny-beaked Big Bird from “Sesame Street”, a less than threatening death symbol (costumes designed by Jennifer Tardiff).
Karin Rosnizeck, with bloody bandana over one eye, poignantly plays the titular Viennese vaudevillean, who entertained European royalty by catching fish in her mouth. Now, the fading star must battle-to-the-death daily with the Cocaloonies for fish to earn her room at the boarding house, managed by Molly (Emily Webbe), her landlady. But remember, this is a spoof on Southern gentility and Molly and Polly now and then inject some comic relief by sitting on the front veranda’s white rockers and rocking themselves into orgasms.
Tattered and trapped in poverty, the Fraulein soubrette still sings. Dressed shabbily like a passed-over circus performer, Rosnizeck warbles like a sick bird yet projects unexpected happiness. Even as the Fraulein’s living conditions worsen to a sickening degree, she possesses heroic tenacity. The Fraulein, like Brecht’s Mother Courage, is driven by an indominable survival instinct. One wonderfully ironic, precious image repeats, thanks to the costume design. It is of the bloodied Fraulein, poised with arms flung out, like a swan queen, in tattered tulle skirt and white tights, ready for take-off to race to the fishing boat to compete for the catch-of-the-day. It’s heartbreaking cruelty.
But most important for the unity of the Continuum, the vulnerable Fraulein, like Lucretia, was jilted by a man she adored. And instead of listening to the reported tale about the Fraulein’s sensational back story, Hardee cleverly enlists audience participation. The director chooses to have his actors act out the demoralizing seal act that sent the fading vaudeville star wandering. James Finley who plays the blond-haired, bare-chested Indian Joe, double plays the Viennese Dandy, the love of the Fraulein’s life. And we are asked to inject our applause.
The Gnadiges Fraulein is a wickedly brilliant, darkly humorous parallel and fitting companion piece for Portrait of a Madonna.
Tennessee Williams Continuum: Two One-Act Plays
By Tennessee Williams
Portrait of a Madonna: directed by Lynn Sharp Spears
The Gnadiges Fraulein: directed by Jay Hardee
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: one hour and 45 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission.
Queen Charlotte “Lottie” Yard . MDTheatreGuideMaura Judkis . tbdBob Mondello . Washington City Paper
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
- Kate Wingfield . Metro Weekly