nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
February 17, 2011
A tender and lyrical elegy to the denizens of a seedy rooming house in the 1930s, Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carré is deconstructed by The Wooster Group into fragmented layers of video, sound, and theater that riff on the concept of “memory play.” In the dramaturgical notes, The Wooster Group points out that recent research indicates that Williams began writing the play in 1939 while he was actually living at 722 Rue Toulouse, where the play is set, and continued to refine the play over the decades until it was finally produced in 1977. Although it was a box office failure that closed after only five performances, I’ve always though the play was unjustly maligned. Like all of Williams’s work, Vieux Carré is peopled with finely drawn fragile characters and there are turns of phrases in the play that are utterly breathtaking. While The Wooster Group takes great liberties with the work, cutting whole sections and turning others into hallucinatory soundscapes, the piercing loneliness and desperation of the characters is beautifully illuminated. It’s a devastating work, gorgeous and haunting.
In the play, The Writer recalls his brief residence in a rooming house in New Orleans, when he was a young man struggling to find his voice and come to terms with his sexuality. An expressionistic production, Vieux Carré takes place more in the mind of The Writer than in a recognizable New Orleans. As visualized by director Elizabeth LeCompte, The Writer’s mind is apparently dark and cluttered. Painted completely black, the set is comprised of two large rolling platforms littered with detritus and ringed by several video monitors. Characters appear out of nowhere and disappear. Often, The Writer guides them in their dialogue, fingering a computer keyboard as if it were the keys of a piano. More Big Apple than Big Easy, The Wooster Group’s version of Vieux Carré is rather like New Orleans blues played as a hopped-up experimental jazz piece.
I found the multimedia at times very affecting and at times one step removed. Video designer Andrew Schneider movingly depicts The Writer fantasizing over his lost love and the ghastly Mary Maude and Miss Carrie, two old ladies dying of hunger and neglect. However, the cacophony of voices and video distracts from the interchange between the characters. The most deeply felt scenes are the relatively simple ones between The Writer and Nightingale, a painter dying of tuberculosis trailing an increasingly bloody handkerchief and sporting a prosthetic erection. Scott Shepherd, who plays Nightingale, is perfectly pitched between poignancy and ludicrousness, clinging to a self image of refinement that is as tattered as his ratty kimono.
Shepherd is also wonderfully lewd as Tye McCool, the perpetually drugged hustler who lives across the hallway from The Writer and is involved in a disintegrating relationship with transplanted New Yorker Jane Sparks. Kate Valk is fragile and touching as Jane, the self-described “northern equivalent of a lady,” who has jettisoned the loneliness and hardship of being an artist for carnal pleasures that she knows are all too fleeting.
Much of the play charts the breakdown of Jane and Tye’s relationship through their increasingly disjointed conversations, but in this production, their arguments are not just overheard by The Writer, but also orchestrated by him. The two characters speak and text is projected against the wall as The Writer maniacally bangs away on a computer keyboard, re-imagining the scene in his memory. The device gets a bit tiresome and I wished I could just watch the scenes without obstruction, but the point is made that destructiveness in human relationships is paradoxically fertile ground for artistic inspiration.
Ultimately, Williams’s heartfelt compassion for destitute dreamers is what resonates and lingers. “Loneliness is an affliction,” muses Nightingale in the play. So is love, Williams seems to say in this play. And art.