Sunday, February 28, 2016

Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams

Jay Lee and Melinda deKay

By Joe Straw

A house breathes
inhales and exhales,
rises and reconciles.

It moves
battered shadows
A house
is a living
breathing thing. – Narrator

coeurage theatre company presents Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams and directed by Jeremy Lelliott through March 12th, 2016. 

The ghosts inhabit 722 Rue Toulouse Street in New Orleans.  In Tennessee Williams’ writings, the shadows moved from room to room to witness a re-awakening from long ago.  In the writing, they are still there; they haunt; the shadows slip through the tiny narrow passageways and up stairwells, trying to find comfort before moving on. 

The house still breathes, slowly, in and out, until an exasperated breath satiates the room.   

Or maybe the house breathes because of the balmy weather, the clouds that roll by highlighting the shadows, exacerbated by the winds off both Lake Pontchartrain, to the north, and the Mississippi River to the east.   

This house with a misfit band of boarders residing in tattered rooms was briefly home to Tennessee Williams. And nineteen thirty-nine left a lasting impression on Williams.  

Vieux Carré directed by Jeremy Lelliott is a theatrical masterpiece.  This surprising, alluring version of the play attacks the visceral senses.  It is Lelliott’s extraordinary vision that captures a fascinating period of time and place.  The actors are mesmerizing, living, breathing, three-dimensional characters that occupy the space so perfectly that one gets a tingling sensation, caught up and absorbing every desperate moment. 

And to encapsulate it all: The breathless loneliness is personified in that one lone creature, The Writer.

“Once this house was alive, it was occupied once.  In my recollection, it still is but by shadowy occupants like ghosts.  Now they enter the lighter areas of my memory.” – Writer

They are there.  Mrs. Wire (Melinda deKay) yelling at Nursie (Leontine Guilliard) to get her a pillow.

Nursie enters from the darkness screaming because there’s a bat in her kitchen, like the ones hanging outside from the banana tree.

“…they all scream at once and fly up like a explosion of damned souls out of a graveyard.” – Nursie

“If such a thing was true!” – Mrs. Wire.

“As God’s word is true.” – Nursie

Nursie is getting old and thinking about retiring but Mrs. Wire won’t let her. Mrs. Wire is getting old too and needs someone to tend to her. Anyway, Mrs. Wire pounds the pillows and lies on the cot in the hallway in front of the door keeping an eye on the occupants as they enter and leave the house.  

Writer (Jay Lee) comes in and after a brief interrogation from Mrs. Wire. She tells him to take Sky’s sack upstairs. And she also lets on that she’s got plans for him.

 L - Sammi Smith, Jay Lee, Leontine Guilliard

Angelical Jane (Sammi Smith) casually strolls into the house with a paper bag in hand and Mrs. Wire has words for her too, about coming in after midnight, which no self-respecting single girl would do. Jane said she was out getting Black Flag because the flying cockroaches are flying into her face from her window that does not have a screen.

“…if a screen has not been put in that window by tomorrow, I will buy one for it myself and deduct the cost from the next month’s rent.” – Jane  

Mrs. Wire goes on to complain about the man sharing her room, Tye McCool (Shaun Taylor-Corbett). Jane is smart enough to understand that she might have made a mistake with him but she’s tired and moves on.

No sooner has Jane has left the room, Nightingale (Dieterich Gray) saunters in with a young man he has picked up at the bus station.  His cousin Jake, or Blake (Graham Kurtz), he is not sure which.  Anyway, Nightingale has family things to discuss with his cousin up in his room but Mrs. Wire immediately put a stop to that in her house.   

Mary Maude (Carryl Lynn) and Miss Carrie (Sandy Mansson), two crones, make their way into the kitchen bringing bags of goodies. Well, greasy bags of rotting food they find in garbage pails. They suggest the leftovers of the “steak Diane” and the chicken “bonne femme” should go into the icebox. Nursie says to leave it but knows that it’s going directly into the trash where it belongs.

Jane wonders out loud if their pride would be offended if she bought them groceries.  Nursie just laughs.

“Honey, they gone as far past pride as they gone past mistaking a buzzard for a bluebird.” – Nursie

Tye comes stumbling in.  He is an addict, and a barker at a strip joint. His effluvium is enough to give him away but Jane ignores him and feels free to talk about him and his faults.

The cast is exceptional as well as diverse.

Jay Lee is very appealing as The Writer and has a charming way about the character’s persona.   His Southern accent is mixed by way of Saint Louis to Memphis and then to New Orleans. As his accent changes from time to time, by living in various locals, it is either genius or accidental.  Still, Lee produces some very nice work.

Melinda deKay presents a grand figure as Mrs. Wire, a voyeur masquerading as a landlady.  It is a role in which deKay presents the right balance of being kind one moment and oppressive the next. Her portrayal is moving and sympathetic, dastardly and unsympathetic.  Actors covet these kinds of roles and deKay makes the most of her opportunity.  Overall, a tremendous job.

Leontine Guilliard as Nursie provides just the right blend to support all the boarders in the house. Guilliard does fine work in her relationship and her interaction will the other characters in the play.

Sammi Smith is extraordinary as Jane.  Smart and wholesome, she has just enough wherewithals to get by.  Once thought of as unwholesome, Jane is always thinking about her next move and relies on the others to help her through her current predicament.  And yes, there is that progressive blood disease, gnawing in the back of her mind.  If only she could relieve herself of her carnal desires and her boyfriend. Smith provides just the right touch to the character, the historical background, and a solid objective.  

L - Dieterich Gray, Jay Lee 

Dieterich Gray, as Nightingale, is marvelous as a campy gay man who wants to go out swinging before tuberculosis takes him out.  He is barely able to survive by being a quick-sketch artist but his curiosity about wanting to know everything gay is profound. Nightingale probably knows that he is dying but wants to have fun living life before he reaches his expiration date.  Gray's work is solid and exceptional.  

Graham Kurtz plays Pickup (Jake or Blake) and has some interesting moments in the short time he is on stage.  

Carryl Lynn is Mary Maude and Sandy Mansson is Miss Carrie and both add a delightful touch to the production.

L - Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Jay Lee, Sammi Smith 

Shaun Taylor-Corbett brings an outstanding physical life to Tye.  He is a strip show barker, addicted to drugs and beautiful smart women. His current life is on a downward spiral.  He has acuity of vision – to look at someone and find fault, but is really trying to find someone to save him from himself.  Taylor-Corbett moves about the stage with confidence and precision. The work is exceptional.

Tony Brown brings some much-needed humor as the Judge.  He is also the photographer.

L - Jonathan Kells Phillips, Jay Lee 

Jonathan Kells Phillips is also exceptional as Sky, a jazz clarinetist, who captures the adventurous soul of The Writer and takes him with him. Phillips manages to project the everyman ideals on stage. And Phillip’s craft has an extreme clarity with a grand mixture of a physical life, mixed with an emotional core, and a historical background.   Although he does not appear until late in the play, this is one performance you do not want to miss!

On top of everything else the actors breathing at the beginning and the end is spectacular!

Lelliott has Jeff Gardner doing foley as though this were a radio play adding sound effects, the sound of rain, someone pouring liquids into a cup, matches being lit, and doors opening. All of this was exceptional but could have had a little more volume.

Alternates who are in the play but did not perform the night I was there are John Klopping (The Writer), Candace Hammer (Jane), Noel Olken (Nightingale/Photographer/Judge), Zach Kanner (Pickup/Sky), Roses Prichard (Mrs. Wire), Toni Trenton (Mary Maude/Miss Carrie), and Charles Britton as Tye.

The Scenic Design by JR Bruce was exceptional – just enough symbolism and realism to complete the set and give the actors a marvelous place to play.

The Costume Design by Magdalena Guillen was also exceptional that provided the actors one extra element to their respective character. The Costume Assistant, Estrella Fernandez was also instrumental in bringing the character to life.  

Lighting Design by Brandon Baruch provided just enough light to have characters hiding in the shadows when they needed to be and profoundly exhibited when the need arose. His work was also exceptional.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Megan Laughlin – Stage Manager
Malika Williams – Assistant Director/Dramaturg
Charles Britton – Prop Design
James Ferrero – Recorded Sound Design
TJ Marchbank – Fight Choreography
Donna Eshelman – Movement Coach/Choreography
Nardeep Khurmi, John Klopping – Production Photographers
Melissa Pryor – Casting Consultant
Ken Werther – Press Representative

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who is curious and lonely.

The Historic Lankershim Arts Center - 5108 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood

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