The Familiar Level Meets The Fantastic Level – A Night With Gamm’s Iguana

 

AR-181019452A touch of the familiar is always welcome, especially when an institution like The Gamm opens its doors in a new city with an entity as unfamiliar to most audiences as Tennessee Williams’ The Night of The Iguana. The sprawling, operatic epic, (which was recently staged at American Repertory Theater, to mixed reviews) is far less familiar than the classic (and often overdone) Streetcar… or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or even Glass Menagerie. The latter shows have been produced ad infinitum to the point of cliché and often rote, stereotyped characterizations. While Iguana has had several incarnations both on film and onstage, it has not birthed a Stella or a Stanley, a Brick or a Maggie – characters burned into our subconscious and hard to overcome in any subsequent productions. Ostensibly, this allows Director Fred Sullivan, Jr. and Artistic Director/lead actor Tony Estrella free reign to put their own, albeit local, stamp on Williams’ ode to desperation, longing and loss. In the attempt, Estrella and company give us a heartbreaking, often soaring treatment of a play that seems at once familiar and disturbingly foreign.

The familiar is at work even before the show starts, as audiences are ushered into the “new” space on Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick. The high-school-auditorium vibe of the former Ocean State Theatre setup has been divided to create a space almost exactly like The Gamm’s former stage in Pawtucket. Slightly larger, but still featuring the abattoir-like tunnel through which audiences must travel in order to reach their seats, the new Gamm still has the same proscenium-ish, audience on one side, configuration. There is still no evident wingspace in sight (Patrick Lynch’s towering, multilayered set takes up everything in our peripheral vision), but hopefully more of a “backstage” than afforded in Pawtucket. On the way in, if so inclined, one can peek through curtains and see the stark contrast of the OSTC version of the theater and realize the lengths that The Gamm has gone through to make their audiences feel at home in their new digs. Comfortable, yes, but it begs the question as to whether or not Estrella and company will choose to up the ante and marry their “powerful but intimate” ethos with the possibility of larger-scale productions at some point in the future.

Night of the Iguana centers around a metaphorical stand-in for several people in Williams’ life (if not himself), the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon, and a “dark night of the soul” – one of many for Shannon – where his desperate longing for connection and understanding, combined with his penchant for lofty fraud, land him once again at rock bottom. Cast into virtual exile by his church and reduced to the role of huckster tour guide in Mexico, Shannon seeks solace in the comfort of one of his only non-judgmental counterparts, Maxine Faulk, proprietor of the ramshackle Hotel Costa Verde. Faulk is Shannon’s alter-ego, all sex and swagger, but her recent widowhood renders her prone to the same longing for connection that Shannon faces, if on a less existential level. As Shannon, Estrella is a powerhouse — in constant search for a place to sit, to rest, to screw, to drink, to bathe, and never quite satisfied once he finds any of them. His dialogue is rarely that, as Shannon talks at people, rarely with them, and the torrent of words, groans and howls add up to an epic poem, with moments of fragile connection interspersed, as the people around him batter their way into his consciousness. Maxine (triumphantly delivered by Deb Martin in a Cate Blanchett-channeling tour de force) takes up just as much, if not more, air than Shannon, but possesses the strength of character and force of conviction that Shannon can never quite master. Not quite Id and Ego, but not far, off, either.

Haunted by a statutory rape charge concerning one of the younger members of his tour entourage, Shannon grapples with the very present conflict of a mutinous busload of women (Costa Verde is not on the current itinerary, it seems), the victim of his assault being the lone holdout, choosing to serenade Shannon with awkward declarations of love. Heartbreaking and earnest, Daraja Hinds’ Charlotte is a voice of innocence amidst the sins of the rainforest, a voice tarnished by Shannon’s iniquities, her cracked soprano revealing all. Michelle Walker’s Miss Fellowes voices the outrage of Shannon’s wrongdoing, threatening his livelihood as well as his sanity, and in denying him even the smallest chance to connect – she constantly reminds Shannon not to touch her – her voice declares that he is alone and must remain so, despite his pathetic attempts to the contrary. Iguana’s most notable line, “The Fantastic Level and the Realistic Level are the two levels upon which we live,” has, perhaps, its greatest realization in the constant intrusion of the “real” world upon Shannon’s fragile soul in Fellowes’ unyielding determination to take him down.

Shannon’s only chance at redemption comes in the guise of Hannah, a buttoned-down, spinster-in-the-making, who ekes out a living traveling the world with her frail “grandfather”, Nonno (Sam Babbitt in one of his more delightful performances to date). Nonno is the “world’s oldest poet” and continues to act as something of Greek-styled soothsayer as he struggles to finish his last great (and long overdue) poem. Each line has an air of vague prophecy and Nonno’s air of dignified tragedy hangs heavy over the proceedings, even when he is absent from the stage. Jeanine Kane’s Hannah is staid, but firm, as she plays the innocent maiden, down on her luck, but knowingly manipulating Shannon into convincing Maxine to give her lodging without payment. Kane’s choices here are subtle – it would be easy to portray Hannah as bitter, strident and self-righteous. Instead, Kane is quietly confident, even while clinging to the strands at the end of her own particular rope, hanging on for the sake of her grandfather and scared to face her own freedom, should it ever come. Much of the play’s second half centers on the unlikely possibility of a connection between Shannon and Hannah, a connection that suffers, in part, due to the tendency for Shannon to feign obtuseness, but also a lack of real chemistry between Kane and Estrella. Theirs is a stage relationship that goes back years and through many productions, but this pairing, while lovely to watch and listen to, falls just shy of drawing us in completely.

Surreal comic relief comes in the form of the Fahrenkopfs, a couple (reduced from the script’s original quartet) of Germans on holiday who obnoxiously relish in their overbearance as well as their extremely vocal proclamations of loyalty to the burgeoning Reich back home. Brandon Whitehead is deliciously pompous here and Maria Day, especially, pulls out the absurdist stops as well as pulling double duty as guitarist/vocalist in several of the production’s gorgeously ephemeral musical interludes. The play often feels like a dream and these musical moments go a long way towards that end (a nod to musical director, Milly Massey is warranted here).

The titular iguana is a rather heavy-handed symbol for the trapped, “at the end of your rope” theme and makes a brief appearance, carried on by the two Costa Verde staffers, Pedro (Luis Minaya, who also plays guitar and lends an elegiac tenor to the interludes) and Pancho (Jose Luis Suazo). The prop is not onstage long enough to register as a replica, but kudos to whoever (there is no Properties Manager listed in the program) bought or fabricated the oversized lizard (one can only assume that the crew gave it a nickname at some point). Lighting is deftly handled by Jeff Adelberg, particularly in a growing storm sequence, where, aided by Alex Eizenberg’s effective sound design, the entire theater drops temperature, the wind blows and we are transported to the rainforest. One does wonder, however, at the missed opportunity for a soundscape during the preshow, which makes a poignant appearance at the top of the show. A directorial choice, perhaps, but hearing those sounds as the audience enters the space would have been instantly transformative.

And then there is Patrick Lynch’s set, practical and awash with just the right touches of grime. Individual cabins and a long balcony present an array of playing spaces and it struck me at once that this scene was vaguely familiar. It wasn’t just the aforementioned approximation of the former Pawtucket location, but something about the look and feel of the scenery itself. It dawned on me midway through the (sometimes overly long) performance that I had seen a similar set and was presented with the same feeling at a production of another underproduced Tennessee Williams show. In 1988, I attended a production of Camino Real at Trinity Rep and the grime and grandeur of that show came flooding back in a wave of familiar memory. It is this thread that ties all of Williams’ work together and, even if a play like Iguana does not have the visceral punch of a Streetcar, it still stirs something within. A connection thirty years in the making across two theaters and two different plays says something about Williams as a playwright and we as a people. We all have that yearning, that need for redemption, that sense of impending loss. Across years and miles, that sensation is familiar, and, yes, fantastic.

The GAMM presents THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, by Tennessee Williams, directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr. through November 4. 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick. For tickets and more information, call 401-723-4266 or visit gammtheatre.org

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