Review: Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams. Developed by and featuring The Williams Project. Presented by Intiman Theatre Festival. Directed by Ryan Purcell. With Grant Chapman, Kemiyondo Coutinho, Rebecca Gibel, Tiffany Nichole Greene, Elise LeBreton, Richard Prioleau, Max Rosenak, and Charlie Thurston. Now through August 2, 2015 at 12th Avenue Arts.
Review: Wizzer Pizzer by Amy Wheeler. Produced by Theatre 22. Directed by Corey D. McDaniel. With Eric Mulholland, Rhonda J. Soikowski, Chip Wood, Alyssa Keene, Pilar O’Connell, Matthew Sherrill, and Lisa Viertel. Now through August 1, 2015 at 12th Avenue Arts.
Our beloved new 12th Avenue Arts complex on Capitol Hill has two plays currently running and…they’re both different kinds of gay.
Orpheus Descending, Tennessee Williams’ 1957 version of one of his first plays, the disastrous Battle of Angels, is Intiman Theatre Festival’s first offering for its 2015 summer season. It’s also not entirely an Intiman production in the strictest sense; this Orpheus is produced by a new young theater company with Washington State roots. Locally raised actor/director Ryan Purcell created The Williams Project with other like minded theater folks back East where Purcell was attending graduate school. But, this group still maintains very strong ties to this area; this production of Orpheus Descending was created in the summer of 2014 at a Purcell family home located in Western Washington.
Audiences were invited to attend the site specific event last year, (the play was staged in various areas of the house and grounds and the audience had to follow the actors around), this summer’s incarnation required the company to obviously do some restaging while keeping the feel and intent of the previous production. The company wanted this play to “move” and not feel trapped within the traditional scope of a theater space.
It’s also not easy to stage many plays from the immediate past with the demands of 21st century theater making. For one thing, casts can be huge in shows from this era. Orpheus Descending had 19 actors in its original production; The Williams Project trims that down to a taut 8 with 4 of the actors undertaking multiple roles, regardless of age, race or gender.
Specifically, staging Tennessee Williams’ work in the modern era can also be tough. The playwright’s larger than life Southern characters and plots can easily veer into the campy realm of southern fried soap opera if not handled carefully. ACT’s recent production of Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof would be a prime example of that trend, with several performances in that show hamhandedly recalling sketches from The Carol Burnett Show.
But, Mr. Purcell and the company have largely succeeded in re-freshening a mid-century play that was suffering from some of the stage bound traditions of that time. They have succeeded in making the play feel alive and fresh and energetic. Orpheus Descending actually feels relevant again and the company raises hope that all of Williams’ work can be seen with this same vitality.
This success can probably be attributed to Mr. Purcell’s astute staging, which uses every bit of available space in the larger of the two theaters at 12th Avenue. The actors seem like they are organically using that space to create the world of this small Mississippi town and all its inhabitants. (Orpheus Descending has a complicated plot involving generations of bigotry and deceit but centers on the arrival of a young stud in town, Val Xavier and the effect he has on the inhabitants, primarily local shop owner Lady Torrance who’s trapped in a loveless marriage to a man dying of cancer.)
The strength of the company itself is the other plus; all 8 actors very naturally and intuitively working together to create this community and regardless of the ages, races, genders of actors or their characters. The director and his cast also do a superb job of knowing how to underplay certain moments in the work, to keep the intimacy real and avoid the tendency to go too big with Williams’ more florid dialogue, but also not being afraid to camp it up at times when the mood of the piece requires it. The primary relationship between Val and Lady is played tenderly while the gossipy old, exposition spouting, neighbor ladies are played for what they’re worth. There’s a lot of smart choices on display in this production and we very much want to see what else The Williams Project has up its sleeve.
Meanwhile, across that NOISY, cavernous lobby at 12th Avenue Arts (love the space; hate the lack of acoustic design) there’s a different kind of gay show going on. Orpheus Descending is by a beloved gay playwright and there’s always hints of homo eroticism in all of Williams’ work (every Williams’ heroine seems to reflect the playwright) and while there’s some fun gender blind casting in this current production, it’s not THAT gay. But, WIZZER PIZZER, the other tenant at the 12th Avenue’s smaller theater, is VERY gay!
It’s the story of Adrian, a depressed, middle aged gay man/drag queen who’s undergoing a mid life gay crisis. Unlike other homos in a similar situation who either get face lifts or drink themselves to oblivion, Adrian gets involved with a creepy TV evangelical preacher/doctor with the mission to de-gay the homosexuals.
Or, does he? Wizzer Pizzer uses the hoary old chestnut of The Wizard of Oz as a through line for the play and the conceit that most of the play is “just a dream”. Which is just one of several major issues with this piece of drama…it’s not very original nor is it really very timely. In fact, Wizzer Pizzer feels like it’s a play from 10, 20 or even 30 years ago. That sad sack, self hating homo main character feels like he wandered in from The Boys in the Band. The relationships between all the characters feel odd and out dated. Even the theme of the “ex-gay” movement feels very 10 years ago.
Frankly, the script is a clunky downer and raises the question, WHY did Theatre 22, a smart young theater company that usually has good taste, pick this dog of a play? There are better gay theater options out there! Do a Charles Busch play….The Divine Sister is yet to be staged in Seattle! For that matter, do a Busch Festival!!!
It should also be stated that Wizzer Pizzer has an excellent cast and production company…all wasted here. Despite being stuck with a lump of a role as the lead, Adrian, Eric Mulholland is always compelling to watch as an actor. Same with the adorable Rhonda J. Soikowski as the cutest lesbian in town and poor Lisa Viertel, stuck playing the same villainous bitch she usually gets cast as (but does so well). Pilar O’Connell and Alyssa Keene are both consistently funny actresses who get to play several roles here and all with great vivacity. And, we have the added pleasure of TWO new actors to the area and they’re both very attractive and very funny: the suave Chip Wood and the energetic Matthew Sherrill will hopefully stick around awhile and enliven some more local theater.
Again, this is a mish mash of a play with clunky plot and dialogue, but it also has some cute moments, largely due to the actors and some smart staging from director Corey D. McDaniel. A bit involving several characters in a car and Rhonda Soikowski’s on the make lesbian Lothario was very well done. The use of projected imagery on a screen for Ms Viertel’s character was exceptionally executed technically. Kudos to Ahren Buhmann and Michael Hayes for pulling it off.
Let’s just write off Wizzer Pizzer as a youthful mistake…and, look forward to their fall production of Water By The Spoonful at West of Lenin.
And, some Charles Busch in the future…hint, hint.