THE TWO-CHARACTER PLAY
Photos: Ride Hamilton
Midnight was proud to be part of the first Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.
Joe had always admired Williams' work, but never saw a place for him to fit it. Finding THE TWO-CHARACTER PLAY changed that.
A fascinating play that Tennessee worked on for ten years, trying to come to (different) terms with his family and his sister, who he tried to characterize in his first success, THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Also intriguing, the obvious influences of Beckett and Pinter throughout the show
Fortunately, actress Michelle Hand felt the same way about the play. And their collaborative work on the play became one of its blessings.
A lot of hard work, a difficult process, and a challenging relationship with the Festival. But the play's success and the team's satisfaction with its final result made it all that much sweeter.
Tennessee Williams' 'The Two Character Play' is a bittersweet tale of insanity and obsolescence
Written by Tina Farmer
The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis focused its inaugural year on the playwright's years in St. Louis, including numerous productions set here or inspired by characters from his life in the city. The Two Character Play is a wonderfully layered, brilliantly acted exploration of family relationships and slipping reality. What makes the play so interesting and unusual is that it features new characters from playwright Williams who somehow feel intimately familiar to fans of his work.
Playwright Felice and his sister and leading lady Clare are stuck in a theater in the middle of the boondocks after being abandoned by their manager and the rest of the company. The other actors have labeled the two insane, and by the end of the show's quick two acts, some audience members may be inclined to agree with them. Undaunted, Felice pushes on, convincing his sister to perform The Two Character Play.
The play within the play is a dark, twisted tale of southern siblings clinging to their crumbling mansion after witnessing the murder-suicide of their parents. It is not clear whether fear, misguided allegiance or simple insanity causes the two to remain in the house despite the fact that they are out of food and all utilities have been cut off. As it turns out, Felice and Claire's offstage story is nearly as convoluted and confusing as the show they're desperately trying to remember and perform.
The production slides effortlessly between the actors and the play, blurring the line with dialogue, action, and intention that seems to somehow fit both situations. Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand are brilliantly lucid and phenomenally confused; their relationship deeply intertwined and absolutely dependent. It is incredibly difficult to accurately portray characters with tenuous grips on reality, but Hand and Hanrahan turn in masterful, seamless performances that reek with authenticity. As with some manifestations of mental imbalance, it is not always easy to follow the character's thought progression and the actors convey this without over-exaggeration or caricature.
Hand reveals multiple connected but distinct personalities as Clare, complete with physical tells and affectations. Hanrahan's Felice appears more consistently in the moment, but his tendency towards violence and forgetfulness belie the effort his sanity requires. The essence and motivation of each character, though difficult to parse, is well-articulated with thoughtful, sharp-eyed direction by Sarah Whitney. Together, she and the actors suggest the burden and blessing of kinship, as complimented by Williams' dense, lyrical dialogue.
It has been postulated that the brother and sister in The Two Character Play may in fact represent a new iteration and different circumstances for two of Williams' most beloved characters, Tom and Laura from The Glass Menagerie. There are distinct correlations that can be drawn between them, and it is clear that both women share traits reflective of Williams' sister Rose. I'll leave the scholars to debate the connection. For me, this show is a powerhouse exploration of tragically and irrevocably flawed characters who somehow find the will and fortitude to push on. Sanity can be fleeting when survival is not assured, and the play probes these dark corners in compelling, disturbingly poignant scenes.
Mark Wilson creates an appropriately tattered and somewhat unreliable set, complete with rudimentary stagecraft and wonderfully nuanced lighting, while stage manager Liz Henning ensures the production keeps moving. The combined results are deeply effective and unsettling, the mood of the show settles in like a sad realization hanging over everyone's head that no one wants to voice. Similar to Waiting for Godot, the show is infused with uncertainty and indecision that inexplicably binds the characters to each other and to their present situation. The impact is palpable, from the moment the curtain opens to the final bows, as the audience is drawn into the sibling's tale and compelled to care, to root them on even while we remain uncertain as to the purpose.
Originally produced for the inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, The Two Character Play will enjoy an extended run Fridays and Saturdays May 27 through June 4 at Winter Opera's space at 2322 Marconi as the Midnight Company further embraces the experimental, tangential nature of the play. With powerful, convincing performances and perceptive direction, Hand and Hanrahan have created a stunning, sometimes unsettling, show that deftly explores insanity, aging and our persistent need for love and companionship.
'The Two Character Play' Is Weird but Oddly Wonderful: Theater Review
by Mark Bretz
Story: Felice and Clare are brother and sister. They're also two players in a traveling troupe who have been abandoned by the others because Felice has been derelict in paying salaries.
Now, they are stuck in a theater somewhere in the middle of nowhere, trying to put on a production with no other performers nor any behind-the-scenes help. Clare tells Felice they have an obligation to their audience, which may or may not be in attendance. Both Clare and Felice periodically glance furtively through the curtain at that alleged audience.
To complicate matters, they're playing characters who also are brother and sister. Those characters have been left in the debris of their father's murder of their mother and his subsequent suicide. The insurance company won't pay any claims because of that suicide, and funds now are perilously low for the adult children.
So, Felice and Clare are stuck in a cold, drafty old theater on a set that echoes their own predicament. Or are those characters on stage really just extensions of their own problematic personalities? Felice and Clare attack each other as vigorously as they quickly forgive their transgressions, sharing a familial bond of charity as well as madness. Where does the play end and their lives begin?
Highlights: The Midnight Company recently staged this weird but oddly wonderful production of one of Tennessee Williams' last efforts as part of the inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. Williams' two-act drama is long on experimentation and poetic dialogue, the type of work that is a specialty of artistic director Joe Hanrahan's troupe.
With the invaluable contributions of Michelle Hand as Clare and Hanrahan as Felice, two veteran St. Louis performers work Hand and Hanrahan to offer a fascinating if bizarre theatrical experience.
Other Info: The festival has now concluded, but Midnight Company is going forward with four additional performances May 27 and 28 and June 3 and 4 at the Winter Opera space, 2322 Marconi on The Hill. That will be a much cozier locale than the musty and historic Mummers Theatre in the Central West End, a 500-seat curiosity shop housed in the former Learning Center and Wednesday Club.
That eccentric location, where some of Williams' earlier efforts were seen, added an element of the surreal to the playwright's experimental piece that has been compared to works by Beckett and Pinter.
It took the gifted writer 10 years to complete this effort, a longer time than he devoted to anything else he wrote in his prolific career. One could argue that it took so long because Williams wasn't exactly sure what to do with his meandering story, which like many of his classic works has an autobiographical base, in this case Williams and his sister Rose.
The Two Character Play is best enjoyed as a curio piece rather than conventional theater. The brother and sister seem to alternate between the lives of the characters they play on stage and their 'real' selves rattling around in their parents' decrepit and decaying mansion. Felice feverishly strives to complete his script while Clare frets about the lack of heat, failing phone lines and the imagined hostilities of their neighbors.
Director Sarah Whitney gives Hand and Hanrahan wide latitude in telling this unusual tale. They move across Mark Wilson's set which evokes an eroded Southern gentility as much as the back wings of a rickety old theater, an image enhanced by Wilson's careful lighting.
They're dressed in Liz Henning's shrewdly selected costumes, refinery for Clare and a fading gallantry for Felice, and they're surrounded by the haunting sounds that fill Jimmy Bernatowicz's sound design.
Whitney moves her players about carefully, from a window to the outside world to an old phonograph playing vinyl memories to stairs going nowhere, just like the characters' lives. Their time is filled with fear and frustration and frenzy in no particular order, akin to #6 in the '60s sci-fi TV series, The Prisoner.
Hand and Hanrahan engage in an ongoing chess match that reveals an advantage for Clare at some points and for Felice at others, but this game is most likely to end in a stalemate. That's a fitting conclusion for their lives and their situation as they await their own Godot.
The Two Character Play offers high-caliber acting and curious entertainment. Like Upstream Theater's enactment of The Glass Menagerie, it was an important contribution to Carrie Houk's inaugural and painstakingly assembled Tennessee Williams Festival, showing the playwright's lasting and continually vital legacy.
Play: The Two Character Play
Group: The Midnight Company
Venue: Winter Opera Space, 2322 Marconi on The Hill
Dates: May 27, 28, June 3, 4
Tickets: $15; contact brownpapertickets.com or purchase at the door
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
THE TWO CHARACTER PLAY • The Midnight Company
"The Two Character Play," one of the many offerings during this year's inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, is one of Williams's later works, and performed in The Learning Center on Westminster Place, formerly known as the Wednesday Club. In the late 1930's, the Wednesday Club's stage was the home of the Mummers of St. Louis theatre troupe, where a few of Tennessee's early plays were debuted. It's poignantly fitting that this play is performed in this creaky old house, where Williams found his beginnings.
Felice (Joe Hanrahan) and Clare (Michelle Hand) are siblings and actors, preparing to perform one of Felice's own works to, possibly, an audience, in a run-down theatre in a nowhere town. Abandoned by their company, with no home except for the theatre, it doesn't take long to see signs of damage between these two. Their ex-colleagues called them "insane." After Felice goes through what seems like a long-practiced ritual of preparing his sister for a performance, the play-within-the-play begins -- about a dysfunctional brother and sister, no less. In the play's play, the siblings are survivors of a shared childhood trauma that leaves them constantly on a precipice, where the prospect of just leaving their house brings on a burden of apprehension. In some of the humorous moments that are sprinkled throughout, their characters' lines are forgotten and improvised, and aside from a southern dialect put on for the "performance," the line between the characters' plight and the actors' realities is razor thin to the point of invisibility, with looming shadows left by a confined, stress, drug, and alcohol-addled existence.
Experimental for its time and 20-plus years after Tennessee Williams's better known works, "The Two Character Play," earlier known as "Out Cry," is considered another one of his highly personal compositions, and it couldn't be in better hands than those of Hanrahan and Hand. With tone perfect direction by Sarah Whitney, these two bring out the strands of humor balanced with the weight of heavier notes, where the lines of "laughing at" and "laughing with" are successfully, clearly, and uncomfortably drawn. Mark Wilson's scenic design is authentically appointed with a random feel that suits the play. Wilson also contributes an evocative lighting design, with sound design by Jimmy Bernatowicz and costume design by Liz Henning.
Don't look for a neat bow at the end of this one, but do enjoy top-notch performances in a properly worn space uniquely tied to its playwright. And do it soon -- the Festival (sadly) ends today (Sunday). 3pm performance, so get your tickets this very minute!
The Two-Character Play
"The Two-Character Play", one of the first offerings from Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, was written in 1973. It's not one his more well-known works, coming later in his career as he was complaining that critics didn't appreciate his style as he evolved. It is, in some ways, rather reminiscent of absurdist theater, things like "Waiting For Godot", language and emotions flying, relevant information coming (and occasionally going) in bits and pieces in sometimes-odd places.
The Midnight Company brings it to us, putting it in the hands of two of St. Louis' most accomplished actors, Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand. They play sibling actors, struggling with careers that reached "failing" status some time ago, partially due to alcohol and pills, but beyond that they seem pretty dysfunctional on their own. The show uses the play-within-a-play idea, and the characters in the play are also siblings who are not in a close relationship with reality. It's hard to tell which pair are more whacked out, but it really makes no difference, the sliding back and forth from one reality to the other is part of the game. Both Hand and Hanrahan are both utterly superb. Neither character would appear not to call for much subtle work; there's a lot of scenes with what in other plays might be called scenery-chewing. But Williams' characters seem to almost inevitably bring over-the-top emotions. Despite the OTT, there's a considerable amount of less obvious work on view in these characters. Director Sarah Whitney orchestrates things beautifully.
Mark Wilson's sets and lighting are deeply evocative of an aging theater somewhere in the hinterlands. That seems particularly relevant here, since the venue is The Learning Center on Westminster at Taylor. In a building designed by Theodore Link, best known for St. Louis Union Station (and across the street from Second Presbyterian Church, another of Link's works), it was originally the Wednesday Club. Built in 1908, several of Williams' early works were staged there. One of the places his family lived – there were quite a few – was in the next block west.
It's a remarkable setting from an historic stance, perhaps not the most comfortable auditorium, but the evening is a worthwhile one. See a later Williams work. See remarkable acting. See a singular venue.
Like Nothing Else by Tennessee: Williams's "Two-Character Play" is Both Avant-Garde and Apparitional
ST. LOUIS MAGAZINE
"I think I was haunted today by his ghost," confides a droll Sarah Whitney, associate director of the Midnight Company and director of Tennessee Williams's The Two-Character Play, opening May 11 at the historic Mummers Theatre in the Central West End. "I was sitting alone in the audience and I heard the floor right behind me creak…I thought, 'There you go, Tennessee. Hope you like what we're doing!'"
A relevant query: would Tennessee, whose tempestuous relationship to St. Louis is the stuff of legend (and no shortage of mention in academic circles), approve of the matter? This is the same man who once dubbed the city "St. Pollution," after all. With or without his phantom consent, the inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis—a five-day series of plays, readings, and lectures from May 11–15—pays tribute to the poet, playwright, and pained dipsomaniac.
"Something about this play lends itself to a theatre that's less pristine," says Whitney of Two-Character, a script Williams labored on longer than any other. "It's one of the densest plays I've ever worked on." The Mummers Theatre is itself a relic of vintage Williams; in 1936 and 1937, three of his plays, Headlines, Candles to the Sun, and The Fugitive Kind, debuted on its stage.
"Like Southern-fried Beckett," as Joseph Hanrahan, who plays Felice, pithily puts it, Two-Character reflects a pivotal shift in the playwright's career. "[Williams] worked on the play for 10 years. Both the thinking and work that went into it are very manufactured—equal heavy amounts of both his own Southern orientation as a writer, and this new, modern abstract sensibility."
Michelle Hand, who plays Clare in the play (and who received her first Kevin-Kline nom for her role as Stella in Streetcar Named Desire), also stresses Two-Character's experimental thrust. "It's total theatre—he goes so much into the surreal bent that some of the class stuff that typifies his other work goes away. He gets at the stuff that holds us together—the nasty stuff that holds us together, but also the transcendent stuff that holds us together."
Born Thomas Lanier Williams, "Tennessee" was no stranger to contradiction. As a young man in St. Louis, he buddied up with some of the city's most charismatic—and controversial—leftist creatives: painter Joe Jones (whose work hangs in both the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Kemper), radical writer Jack Conroy, and proletariat poet Josephine Johnson, to name a few. Meandering the delightfully tetanus-friendly obstacle courses of the present-day City Museum, it might be easy to forget it was once a shoe factory—the same Depression-era edifice in which Tennessee and his father toiled for years, the reason that the Williams family left rural Mississippi for the bustling metropolis of St. Louis. And driving down Taylor, past Westminster, in the Central West End, Mummers Theatre (currently inhabited The Learning Center, an educational nonprofit) might seem just another tony residence. But St. Louis is, if anything, a haunted place, and as such the perfect space to celebrate a very haunted man.
That is, no matter how shiny his Delmar star, Williams's relationship to this city was no less stormy than those that typify his plays. "At its most basic level," explains Hand, "Two-Character is about a brother and sister, and how they're negotiating getting what they need from each other—needs connected by blood, history, and everything else."
"What makes it so St. Louis," says Whitney, "is you have these two people who want to be something more, and you have this city where so often people feel as though they could be something more, but can't do so in the city." But like so many literary greats with a complicated connection to our town—among them, T.S. Eliot, Sara Teasdale, Maya Angelou—it is no less true that some of their greatness was of our town as well, haunting its corridors, lobbies, and stages long after these legends had passed, or moved, on.
To witness Tennessee resurrected in such a context feels at once audacious and elegiac—in keeping with an especially plangent exchange toward the end of The Two-Character Play. "When are we going home?" Clare asks her brother. "Clare," he responds, "our home is a theater anywhere that there is one."
Performances of The Two-Character Play go on Wednesday and Thursday, May 11 & 12 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, May 13 at 8 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, May 14 & 15, at 3 p.m. The historic Mummers Theatre is located at 4504 Westminster (at Taylor), in the Central West End. Tickets are available at metrotix.com; for more information visit the Tennessee Williams Festival site, twstl.org.
Tennessee Williams Festival Takes STL Back In Time
Snoop's Theatre Thoughts
"The first annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis took place last week in various locations in Grand Center and the Central West End. A celebration of the great American playwright who spent a significant part of his formative years in St. Louis, the festival was an impressive effort spearheaded by Executive Artistic Director Carrie Houk. Over several days, various performances, lectures, presentations and more were held, including an outdoor screening of the film A Streetcar Named Desire, a "Stella!" shouting contest, a bus tour of important Williams-related sites, and several informative lectures and readings.
Among the events I attended were a fascinating "Tennessee Williams 101" presentation by Augustin Correro, and a panel discussion comparing two plays that were both performed in conjuction with the festival, The Two-Character Play and The Glass Menagerie. There was also an excellent tribute reading presentation, "Tennessee Williams: I Didn't Go To the Moon, I Went Much Further" in which several local and national performers took turns reading from Williams's plays and other writings, as well as singing songs written by him and his colleagues. The highlights of this evening for me were the essays, including one about actresses Williams worked with, read by Jeremy Lawrence, as well as one about Williams' father read by Lisa Tejero, and one about his involvement with the Mummers theatre troupe in St. Louis in the 1930's, read by Ken Page. Williams' St. Louis years in the 1930's seemed to be the major inspiration for most of the theatrical productions I saw, as well, including the previously reviewed The Glass Menagerie and two of the three shows I saw last week. Here are some short reviews:
Presented by the Midnight Company and directed by Sarah Witney, The Two-Character Play stars local performers Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand as a brother and sister acting team whose personal relationship informs the play they perform. This production is given an extra degree of authenticity since it was performed at the Mummers Theatre, inside the Learning Center building (formerly the Wednesday Club) in the Central West End. This theatre hasn't been renovated in years, and so it retains its atmosphere as an old, historic theatre. That works well for this play as the two leads find themselves abandoned by their company on the eve of a touring performance, stranded in this old theatre and deciding to try to make the most of their performance.
There's a decidedly mysterious air to this play, as we're not entirely sure what's real and what isn't, and the "play within a play" seems to reflect a great deal of the characters' own relationship and background. In fact, the actors are called Felice (Hanrahan) and Clare (Hand), but so are the characters they play. The brother-sister dynamic also seems to be informed by Williams' relationship with his own sister, which formed the inspiration for several of his works.
Hanrahan and Hand are well-cast, imbuing the flawed, bickering siblings with an underlying sense of connection and care. As the situation grows more and more unusual, and as Hand's Clare begins to take charge and change the play as it goes along, the sense of a nebulous but inevitable conclusion builds, as does the odd sense of tension and affection between the characters. It's a fascinating performance, played out on a vaguely cluttered set that contributes to the overall atmosphere of building chaos.
The Two-Character Play will continue its performances at Winter Opera St. Louis on The Hill on May 27 and 28, and June 3 and 4. I highly recommend checking it out.
The new Curtain Call Lounge was the perfect setting for this short comedy, directed by Brian Hohlfeld, that gives us a glimpse into the life of two contentious traveling friends, Bessie (Kelley Anderson Weber) and Flora (Rachel Tibbetts) who have stopped in for a few drinks while in St. Louis for a convention. As they bicker and reminisce of days gone by, a singer (Landon Tate Boyler) serenades them and the audience with tunes from the era, and a nice waiter (Bob Harvey) brings drinks and joins in their banter.
This show was the first of two "time trip" performances I attended on the same night, and the setting really helped set the mood. The Curtain Call Lounge was set up as usual, with Bessie and Flora seated at one of the tall tables and Boyer singing on the stage. It was like being transported to 1930's St. Louis with the audience as the "fly on the wall" witnessing the conversation, as Tibbetts's more emotional Flora and Weber's outwardly tougher Bessie express their loneliness and regret in various ways, along with the continuing hope of just being able to have a good time. They snark, they bicker, they laugh, and sometimes they even dance. Both actresses give excellent, well-realized performances, with Boyler in great voice as the suave singer and Anderson engaging as the waiter. It's an alternately hilarious and poignant performance, set in the absolutely perfect venue.
Speaking of perfect venues and time trips, this fully immersive production at the historic Stockton House was perhaps the most extraordinarily unique theatrical presentation I've witnessed. Directed by David Kaplan with Brian Hohlfeld, this was a collection of plays written by Williams about various characters in a rooming house setting, and so the audience is taken on a tour, traveling from room to room and witnessing the action as well as stopping in the parlour at various moments for live musical performances of atmospheric songs of the period, with various cast members singing and musical director Henry Palkes on piano. It was all wondrously evocative, with a melancholy air as the characters we met expressed varying degrees of longing and regret.
Broken up into four groups based on the colors of the tags of the room keys they are given, the audience members start out in the parlor and are ushered in different orders to various rooms throughout the house. I was in the "gold key" group, and I'll be reviewing the plays in the order I saw them. First, my group was taken upstairs for "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches". We sat around the room as aging shoe salesman Charlie (Peter Mayer) lamented the passing of his era of sales, complaining to the somehwat brash younger salesman Bob Harper (Jared Sanz-Agero) about how much has changed. The overall air of sadness in this room was emphasized by B. Morgan Thomas as the Porter who only "spoke" by playing his saxophone with a bittersweet tone. Mayer's performance was especially memorable, painting a vivid portrait of this career salesman who had lived his life on the road and whose best years were behind him. His collection of watches–awards for his work in previous years–served as a testimony to the glory years gone by.
From there, we were taken downstairs for "In Our Profession", a short play about a needy, lonely actress (Julie Layton) and the two men (Ben Nordstrom, Christian Chambers) to whom she quickly grows attached. This, while still having that undertone of loneliness, was played more for laughs, with strong, believable performances from all three leads. After this, it was back to the parlor for some more singing, then for a brief interlude in the foyer as residents carried on a conversation on the stairs, then back upstairs for the heartbreaking "Hello From Bertha", featuring Anita Jackson in an extraordinary performance in the title role. Bertha is bedridden in the brothel in which she has worked, supported by sympathetic colleague Lena (Maggie Wininger), and ranting to her boss, Goldie (Donna Weinsting) about her own regrets, and a lost love from her past. It's obvious to everyone but Bertha that she is dying, and it's devastating to watch. It's a brilliant performance, with excellent support from Wininger and Weinsting.
Next, our group was led down the hall to another room, "The Pink Bedroom", in which a young woman (Julia Crump) waits for the married man (Eric Dean White) with whom she has been carrying on an extended affair. This play has something of a surprise twist that changes the tone at the very end, although for the most part it's again about loneliness and regret, as Crump's character wishes for more appreciate from White, who has come to treat this relationship as more of a routine over the years. There's no joy here. It's all loss, jealousy, and regret, with strong performances by both Crump as the somewhat petulant mistress and White as the apathetic man.
After this play, we were then ushered down the steps–after another brief interlude witnessing a rooming house interaction–to finally wait in the foyer for the cast to descend the staircase for another soaring, wistful musical performance and "curtain call". It was all so well-done that I truly felt for a few moments as if I had been transported to 1930's St. Louis. The costumes (by Bonnie Krueger), the staging, and the room sets (designed by David Richardson) all lent an air of authenticity to the proceedings, and the sense of longing and regret permeated the entire evening. This was such an incredible experience, and I hope there will be a way for this to be staged again, either in this venue or elsewhere.
Overall, I would say that the first edition of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis was successful and extremely promising. It was a fitting celebration of Williams's life and work, showcasing some truly excellent creative and dramatic talent. Long may this festival continue!
Unusual Venues, Outstanding Acting Drive The Inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival
A week long celebration (with some extensions) proved that, despite his bad memories of our town, nobody likes Tennessee Williams better than St. Louis. The bulk of his writing happened when he lived here and now Carrie Houk led the way in organizing the celebration of his work. It all started with "The Glass Menagerie" as presented by Upstream Theatre I already reviewed in a piece on Stage Door St. Louis.
Also mentioned in a post on FB earlier that the few things I saw during the Festival gave me an eerie feeling. This whole week seemed to awaken the ghost of Tennessee. I felt his presence in all three plays I saw and I'm not usually one to get these feelings or conjure up spirits. There was an odd familiarity in "Menagerie" that gave me a feeling of deja vu about the whole post war era that Williams manifested in this work- even though it was before my time. "The Two-Character Play" was performed in a staging area at the Wednesday Club where Tennessee saw many of his plays performed for the very first time. Hence the weird feeling I felt while watching that production. And finally, seeing a series of short plays lumped under the title, "The St. Louis Rooming House Plays," really gave me some serious chills up my spine. Performed at the Stockton House, the audience travelled from room to room and stood in the small spaces almost nose-to-nose with the actors. Again, a presence that was reminiscent of the actual people Tennessee based these people on or perhaps Mr. Williams himself. It was a thrilling sensation but one that truly gave me pause as I watched various actors bring these characters to life.
You could not ask for a better pairing in a two character play than Joe Hanrahan and Micelle Hand- two of our cities' most celebrated actors. Mr. Hanrahan's Midnight Company delivered the play with direction by Sarah Whitney. As a brother and sister acting team, they are on the road in one podunk town after another. Performing a play written by the brother, Felice, it involves a fictional brother and sister who are trapped by fear or circumstance in a crumbling Southern mansion dealing with the fact that their father murdered their mother and then killed himself. But are Clare and Felice the real brother and sister and performing their play after being driven to insanity by these turn of events? Are they real at all? Are we watching the ghosts of Clare and Felice or perhaps watching two characters who have come to life and living their own personal hell? It's a fascinating study and one that lets these two fine actors show their strength. It is mesmerizing.
"The St. Louis Rooming House Plays" are even more ethereal and haunting. The audience is broken into four different groups and we each start and end with different plays. This makes for an interesting effect as the "ghosts" of these characters filter through from one room as you're watching another play. The order I saw them in featured "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches" first with Peter Mayer as a beleaguered traveling salesman who is followed into his boarding house room by a bellhop that is playing a saxophone and using it to communicate. Visited by a colleague, played by Jared Sanz-Ajero, they discuss the sales business until the bellhop returns with his horn and now sporting a pair of wings. Case closed. But as we travelled to other rooms, the sound of that saxophone followed us as the other "guests" watched the play.
"In Our Profession" was next for us as we saw Ben Nordstrom and Julie Layton sparring with each other as she obviously was looking for someone to settle down with and just happened to bark up the wrong tree as we can see when Christian Chambers entered the room. Next we had a sombre take on death and a last grasp of hope as Anita Jackson, as Bertha, mourned her existence while "taking up valuable space" in the rooming house and waiting for her knight in armor to return and rescue her. Donna Weinsting was a nice blend of kind and cruel while Maggie Winiger tried her best to appease Bertha.
Finally we entered the world of "The Pink Bedroom" as Julia Crump primps and preens, awaiting her gentleman caller in the guise of Eric Dean White. Things don't go as planned as she eventually breaks up with him and tells him to go back to his wife while she reveals a secret hiding in the closet. Brian Hohlfeld directed this one while David Kaplan directed the other one-acts. It's all tied together with an opening musical interlude and a short play as a "filler" while we're waiting to proceed to one of the other rooms. Whether it's the close proximity of actors to audience or the uneasy feeling of this old house that probably saw a lot of similar exchanges throughout the years, this series of plays was exciting yet chilling.
Congratulations to Carrie Houk, her staff, her volunteers and the amazing number of speakers, presenters, actors and directors who contributed to this amazing body of work. I just wish I could have experienced more but I'm in an unusual situation with a recuperating wife and I feel fortunate to have experienced what I did in this jam-packed week of Tennessee Williams overload. Look forward to next year. Thank you all.
The Two-Character Play
The Midnight Company
Richard T. Green
Funny and frightening, this weirdly hilarious nightmare from 1967 was written by Tennessee Williams, apparently under the influence of Samuel Beckett, with a dash of Jean-Paul Sartre thrown in for good measure.
Michelle Hand is Claire—a faded dramatic actress on tour with her brother Felice (Joe Hanrahan). They're at the end of their careers, in that familiar Williams-esque mood of delicate desperation, both on stage and off, winding down their former glory in a strange memory play, set in a once-grand family home, now haunted by a ghastly crime from their childhood.
But it's an unexpectedly self-aware, often uproarious Tennessee Williams that flips back and forth between on-stage and back-stage realities, under the splendid direction of Sarah Whitney. Two actors (and their characters) shift between the horrifically honest and the wickedly stagey, within a nanosecond. We all go hurtling down one hall of mirrors after another as the characters flicker between lyrical hopelessness and snarling comedy.
It's almost as if the great playwright himself suddenly realized the parody to be mined in his own works, and subverted his trademark style all into an amalgam of Noises Off and Waiting for Godot. I like to think that the whole genre of comedy (what we now call comedy) came along after the invention of tragedy, simply because too many bad tragedies were being produced back around 230 BCE. In that sense, comedy may have become inevitable. Something similar might have happened to Williams in the 1960s, perhaps after seeing one too many lesser productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, inspiring this laugh out loud encounter with darkest existentialism.
Ms. Hand as Claire begins the evening in a far room upstage, slowly applying make-up. But it's done in such a strange, listing manner, that we suddenly apprehend her situation: an actress who can no longer stay in the moment, or even upright, as the call approaches.
Mr. Hanrahan as Felice manages to keep her on track, in spite of it all, most of the time. But the drama lies in how often her terrors get the better of her, and of him, too. The whole thing bubbles and roils to such high passions that a bygone family tragedy (involving a murder-suicide) starkly threatens to repeat itself. Inside their haunted family mansion/rundown theater is the safety of familiar Williams themes of loss and humiliation and broken dreams. But outside is the abrogation of all known realities, in either freedom or death.
It's just stunning, in this production, and apparently one of Williams' own favorite plays, too. Ms. Hand and Mr. Hanrahan skate along in complete realism one moment, then throw on flouncy, phony Blanche DuBois style Southern accents as needed. Then, gradually, the line between reality and theatrics is obliterated, taking us all down the rabbit hole together.
Part of the fun is the little "ping" in Ms. Hand's consciousness, as the play shifts back and forth between the Streetcar-like scenario, and the utter tragedy of two actors at the end of the line. Each time the game shifts in or out of the play-within-the-play, a tiny crackle of excitement (or dread) is visible in her eyes, as a different reality is about to unfold. The two actors are like George and Martha from Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, one devising games for the other merely to stave off utter madness.
Extended through June 4, 2016, from the recent first annual Tennessee Williams Festival, at the Winter Opera, 2322 Marconi Ave. For more information, www.midnightcompany.com.
The Two-Character Play | Midnight Company
Two magnificent actors plus an iconic writer's work minus the fourth wall equals a night of outstanding theater. Midnight Company tackles Tennessee Williams' somewhat autobiographical study on the "confining nature of human existence." Claire (Michelle Hand) and Felice (Joe Hanrahan) are traveling actors who have been deserted by their company and friends. The show has a play within a play called "The Two-Character Play" in which Claire and Felice—in character—expose all of their anxieties, paranoia, and social flaws. The fact that Claire and Felice also have these same issues makes their respective characters even more believable.
While the story is overly complex, it really is quite enjoyable to follow thanks in part to the amount of comedic lines Williams wrote. I never knew Williams was so funny. The dialogue of the show is classic Williams with dramatic pregnant pauses and verbal diatribes so exquisitely crafted that you could almost see the emotional wounds inflicted manifest on the actors' bodies.
I mentioned the absence of the fourth wall earlier. Although the actors interacted with the audience in brief moments, I was referring to how the gap between the audience and the actors was physically non-existent. Produced at Winter Opera, the room was no larger than the basement of a moderately priced home. Two rows of chairs lined up against the back wall were only inches away from the actors themselves. It is, perhaps, the most intimate setting for a production I have attended.
The smallness of the room was the perfect setting for this type of show. Tender facial movements may have gotten lost in a bigger theater. Bravo to the technical team of Mark Wilson, Liz Henning, and Jimmy Bernatowicz—all of whom wore multiple hats—for creating such an magnificent world for the actors to inhibit.
Then we get to the two characters of the play, Hanrahan and Hand. Both actors did sensational jobs in their performances. Hanrahan's ability to give his performance enough emotional weight without crossing the line was brilliant. The love Hanrahan has for the dialogue Williams created was undeniable. His performance was heartfelt and endearing. This is one performance I would love to see again.
Hand is the total package. She ran the gamut of characterizations: alcohol addiction, paranoia, manic depression, ferocious anger, compassion, and most of all love. Her role was the Olympics of acting and she, by far, won the gold. Her menacing glare from across the room made me ill at ease, her ability to land the lion share of the jokes was exquisite, and her delivery of the verbose dialogue—with elocution that will make your head spin—was perfection. Any time you get the chance to see Hand in action take it. She is a magnificent jewel in St. Louis' theatrical crown.
The Two-Character Play is a fascinating study in human behavior, which also reminded me of Grey Gardens. What happens when you cut yourself off from society and marinate in your own neuroses? While that question will remain with me for a while, so will this production. This show is a must-see for the mere fact that you will see two locals actor give a master class on emotional realness. | Jim Ryan
The Two-Character Play has a limited run until June 4. Please visit midnightcompany.com—quickly—for tickets.
A small production illuminates a corner of Tennessee Williams
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Two veteran St. Louis actors, Michelle Hand and Joe Hanrahan, portray a theatrical sister and brother in a late Tennessee Williams drama, "The Two-Character Play."
It is not for everyone, by any means. But fans of Williams, of these performers, or of modern theater in general will be rewarded if they brave a treacherous exterior staircase and hard, cramped seats inside to see this production. It's puzzling and potent, all at once.
After its debut at Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, this production from Hanrahan's Midnight Company moved on independently to tell the story of Felice (Hanrahan), an actor and playwright, and his sister, Clare (Hand).
They've been on the road for years. By the time we meet them, their producers and the rest of their troupe have given up on the duo, abandoning them someplace in "the boondocks" (as Williams terms it). Determined to satisfy their small audience — us? — the troupers proceed to stage a Southern Gothic drama involving murder, suicide and more.
But is that Felice's script? Or the siblings' actual history?
Neither Williams nor director Sarah Whitney is eager to clarify the distinction, and perhaps for good reason. As Clare, Hand weaves together elements of other Williams characters — Blanche DuBois' cheap jewelry and heavy drinking, Laura Wingfield's agoraphobia, Alexandra Del Lago's self-aggrandizement — to create an alluring North Star to Felice's inconstant yearning.
We never do learn what Felice, as indecisive as Hamlet, wants of his sister. But with echoes of an older, broken Tom Wingfield (and maybe of the playwright as well), Hanrahan limns a sympathetic figure, lost but not alone. That's simultaneously a burden and a comfort. Perhaps the characters in Sartre's "No Exit" felt the same way.
Revised: October, 2007
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