We few; we happy few.
Six performances times sixteen seats comes to fewer than 100 people who will see The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers, which is a very early one-act by Tennessee Williams that, until recently, had never been produced.
Spooky Action Theater is mounting the show away from their usual space on 16th Street near S. They are in residence at the bar Baby Wale DC, on 9th Street between L and M, across from the Convention Center.
Young Tennessee (Spooky Action is quite proud of the photo depicting a college-age Williams which they’ve reproduced in the program) was inspired by an 11th Century tale originally written in what a note in the program describes as archaic Japanese.
Director Natsu Onoda Power embraces the aesthetic suggested by that source and has created, for this rendering, a production that melds Asian story-telling devices with a playful 21st Century sensibility, telling the story in a way that is wonderfully creative, delightfully cheeky, and thoroughly engaging.
With a 6:30pm start time and a free drink offered with the ticket, the event is being described as a happy hour theater experience. Audience is invited to stay after the show to drink more or to eat or even to mingle with the theater-makers.
We enter the performance area by climbing the stairs up to the mezzanine level above the back of the bar/restaurant. There we are greeted by the sight of the cast of three bopping to a pre-show tune as they prep on a mostly bare playing area. (It is unclear if the three posters on the back wall announcing concert events are part of the design or part of the restaurant’s usual decor.) (I didn’t get close enough to those to learn whether the advertised “Butt Jam” has already occurred.)
The set otherwise consists of a small box containing a puppet theater. The actors employ finger puppets, puppets on sticks, various placards, masks, small props such as paper flowers, and percussive instruments. (The clapping of wooden sticks at the beginning will remind Sondheim fans of the opening to Pacific Overtures.) The cast is dressed in layers, the costumes being also involved in story-telling and place-setting.
Power’s production is stylized and constantly clever. The text has been thoroughly explored, each moment forged with fine attention to every detail, all of which animate the story wonderfully.
The cast of three alternate between one main character each will play and ensemble chores which involve providing narration and the playing of minor parts.
Melissa Carter is charming and bright as the story’s Princess; she also has a nifty sequence when she animates and vocalizes several finger puppets at once. (In addition to performing, Carter is responsible, along with Power, for the props and puppets.)
Jared H. Graham, a young guy, credibly pulls off the presumably older councilor to the Emperor, and is delightful during a fun dance sequence.
It is Dylan Arredondo, however, as the Emperor (the plot involves his quest to find a superb writer of verse) who really drives the piece, and he’s terrific. Despite the artificiality of the conceit, and while keeping the rhythm taut and energized, he provides wit, supplies spontaneity, and invites empathy.
The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers closes December 22, 2019. Details and tickets
A program note makes the case that this short piece foreshadows Williams’ later work, that remarkable oeuvre which, though impressive in breadth, is unmistakably stamped by characteristics such as his recurring themes, rich imagery, and great compassion for the lost among us.
The program note makes a fair argument, but anyone hoping for a typical Tennessee experience may be disappointed and leave feeling that this somewhat slight fable is more a curiosity than it is a significant contribution to the canon.
That acknowledged, I listened to a late scene, during which the Emperor and the Princess discover how simpatico they are, and imagined how a young Williams would have been invested in and moved by the sweetness of their incipient connection as his writing relates it.
If I have one caveat with this delightful presentation of the play, it would be that I would have preferred it, I think, if the tempo slowed a bit during that climactic scene, and the energy of the show took on a more delicate tone.
Still, I’m so glad to have seen this piece and I recommend it highly. I have admired Power’s work before, and this production emphasized to me that she is one of the most exciting and innovative talents in town.
I have to admit, too, that seeing this had me flashing back, with affection, to the early 80s, when my mentor Bart Whiteman, founding artistic director of Source Theatre Company, was programming as many as three home spaces while also plopping down performances in various other venues all over town. These included, to name a few, the basement of Kelly’s Irish Times on the Hill; the second level of what is now La Tomate in Dupont; a dis-used bank vault in Adams Morgan; a gay bar destined to be torn down for the FBI Building.
DC theater is unrecognizable now as compared to those days; it’s much more institutionalized. How lovely (and how it triggers nostalgia in me) to be reminded every once in a while that a fancy building, a staff of dozens, and plush amenities, while all fine and good, are not essential for the creation of a work of theatrical art. (The entire Spooky Action team, on-stage and off, including front of house, numbers five.)
I know there’s other work like this in different spots around town; I wish I got around to seeing more of it. But I’m grateful to Spooky Action for this awesome reminder of the power of imaginative theater.
The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers by Tennessee Williams . Directed by Natsu Onoda Power . Featuring Dylan Arredondo, Melissa Carter, and Jared H. Graham . Props and Puppets: Natsu Onoda Power, Melissa Carter . Produced by Spooky Action Theater . Reviewed by Christopher Henley.