Word on the street, Vieux Carre is going to P-Town

vieuxReviewed by Nancy Oliveri

You probably already know that Tim Gleason is raising funds to take his Know Theatre ensemble to Cape Cod to present Vieux Carre at the International Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. But before they go at the end of this month, the cast and crew will present the play “in the round” at its Carroll Street venue for one more weekend: this Friday and Saturday (Sept. 19-20). You will never have a better chance to catch this little-known Williams work unless you travel to Massachusetts, too, and it’s well worth seeing.

Vieux Carre is loosely based on the playwright’s own experiences as a young man in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the late 1930s, specifically his recollections of time spent at a two-story fleabag boarding house at 722 Toulouse St, a time of sexual awakening for the young gay writer. Without naming Williams directly, the play demonstrates clearly where, and how, his later sensibilities emerged, and it’s fascinating to watch.

Know founder Gleason learned just a few months ago that the company’s application to perform at the festival had been accepted, hence the restaging of a play that was part of the 2013-14 season. With limited space, “in the round” at the Know means a row of chairs behind the actors, two short rows on either side of the stage and the rest of the house open as usual. So depending on where you sit, you get a slightly different experience.

However, the configuration also creates a degree of upstaging for the actors, as the blocking is designed to play, at least now and then, to either the audience at the back or on the sides of the stage. As a result, if any of the actors don’t take extra care to articulate their lines, or if they use an accent or dialect that the core audience may be less familiar with, it can be hard to decipher what’s being said. But for the most part, only some words got garbled and not enough to throw off the plot lines, which are arguably thin.

The best scenes, based on Williams’ journal entries, are more like character sketches strung together, and he may have been a little too wedded to each rendering. I think the play could have benefitted from some earlier streamlining, but over the 40 years it took him to complete the script, Williams may have forgotten what he had originally meant to redact. I suppose it’s blasphemy to call out for overwriting a man who has been dubbed an “American Shakespeare,” but Shakespeare isn’t known for brevity, either.

I saw first saw the Know production as an audience member, not as a reviewer, just a little over a year ago. I think the production has improved over time, with only a few of the actors reprising their roles. The BAM review of the summer 2013 production can be found here: http://www.broomearts.org/broome-arts-mirror/review/strong-cast-elevates-vieux-carre-at-know-theatre/

Vieux Carre is interesting for fans of Tennessee Williams. Easy to spot are the prototypes for characters later fleshed out in his better-known theatrical staples such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But this play burbled in the playwright’s mind for about 40 years before it premiered in 1977. It may have, even then, seemed a little less relevant than at its inception, although the themes of homosexuality, loneliness, domestic violence and intolerance still had the capacity to shock an audience. It closed on after only a few performances.

Directed for the second time here by Brandt Reiter, and featuring two Equity actors among its cast of 10 fine performers, Vieux Carre is worth the price of the ticket, if only to be reminded again how Binghamton in general, and Know Theatre in particular, are incredible incubators for young talent as well as a home for more seasoned performers.

Tommy Heleringer is The Writer, narrating and living his literary dream at 722 Toulouse, not only interacting with, but mentally devouring the essence of his fellow boarders for the sake of his craft. His character comes of age amidst the squalor of his impoverished housemates — a consumptive old queen, Nightingale (Gleason), who really breaks your heart every time he hacks up blood or longs for the touch of another person; the beautiful, classy, Jane (Jessica Nogaret), who could do a lot better than her surly, strung-out, abusive but handsome boyfriend, Tye (Tyler Downey); the house mistress, Mrs. Wire, played well, but a little too largely for this small stage, by Desiree Ledet, reprising a role she has done more than once or twice.

Ledet is almost too comfortable and familiar with it and, I think, traded a little too much volume for genuine disgust with her boarders. Her character makes a pretty remarkable transformation with a costume and hair change toward the end when she basically goes nuts, but I didn’t see enough about her circumstances to warrant what seemed like an abrupt alteration. That is another criticism of the script, not the actor. She gets in trouble for doing something I didn’t believe her character would have thought to do in the first place, but I won’t spoil that.

I shut everything out for a minute when the believable Qiana Watson (as Nursie) began her sweet vocal musical segues as Mrs. Wire’s housekeeper. Given the age of the play, the subject matter and the setting, the presence of a black servant is not a surprise, but Watson’s remarkable restraint with the role is welcome. Think Viola Davis as opposed to Octavia Spencer in the recent film set in the Civil Rights era, The Help.

In supporting roles, Brian Nayor as Sky, the dashing musical drifter, and Erik Young as The Photographer, provided some levity and youthful enthusiasm, helping to conclude an otherwise aimless plot.

While I don’t want to say “and best of all” only because it’s hard to really say that, but earning more respect for their roles, at least from this critic, are veteran actors Pat Donohue as Miss Carrie and Carolyn Christy-Boyden as Maude. As the faded, genteel, however starving, ladies of the Vieux Carre, they never lose their dignity. Your heart breaks for them, as no senior citizens should have to beg for sustenance, but they do it with grace and humor.

I kept thinking how lucky this community is to have so much talent. The thermometer graph in the lobby shows that Know has almost reached its goal to get everyone to Cape Cod and back, but donations are still being accepted and are greatly appreciated.

Tickets are available at https://squareup.com/market/know-theatre, 607-724-4341 or binghamtoncitystage@gmail.com. Details: Visit http://www.knowtheatre.org.

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