"He who hopes to grow in
spirit/will have to transcend obedience and respect,"
wrote the Greek homosexual poet C. P. Cavafy. "Mostly
he'll violate both law and custom/And go beyond the
established, inadequate norm...He won't be afraid of the
destructive act;/half the house will have to come down."
Few theater artists today have less use for "the
established, inadequate norm" than JoAnne Akalaitis.
After a long period of walking the stony beaches of Beckett
and Kroetz and Buchner, in recent years she has sought solace
in the tropically lush gardens of perverse homosexual poets:
Jean Genet, Jane Bowles, and now Tennessee Williams.
From the first instant of her
production of Suddenly Last Summer, Akalaitis strips
away any vestige of Actors Studio naturalism to expose the
raw, bleeding images that underlie the play's Greek-static
exposition and melodrama plot. The preshow tape of electronic
twitters escalates to an unnerving crush of gull cries that
conjures Hitchcock. Bright lights reveal Sebastian Venable's
"well-groomed garden" -- an insanely artificial
green-and-gilt landscape designed by Romanian artist Marina
Draghici as a mockery of nature, with a stair-stepped
waterfall of plastic wrap leading to a pool of real water, a
bird-beaked mini-mountain sprouting cacti, a plastic-cube
flowerpot on a steel stem, and a giant chandelier hovering
like a nightmare wasp's nest. In the midst of this Dali-meets-Robert-Wilson
canvas stands Anita Gillette in the reddest dress you've ever
seen with orange-frosted hair, one red-gloved hand crumpling a
white hanky, a yellow-gloved hand gripping a gold cane.
Best-known as a doe-eyed comic Broadway actress, Gillette here
gives an outrageous performance as Violet Venable. Oozing
grotesque vanity and incestuous pride in her dead poet son,
she's Amanda Wingfield as played by Norma Desmond. But as she
stands on Draghici's sloping croquet-court of astroturf
plotting to lobotomize her niece with the white-suited
rabbit-quiet Doctor Sugar, and especially when she makes her
final exit shouting her own variation on "Off with her
head," you can't help seeing her as The Red Queen. And
behind the whole performance stands the Great Mother herself,
the fiery all-consuming goddess Kali.
Williams called the play
"a moral fable of our times," and it might be
tempting for a director to reduce the fable to a moralistic
battle between the noble visionary and the brutal poet-smasher.
Akalaitis sidesteps that sentimental trap; after all, what
does Violet Venable represent if not society's lip-service to
the value of art while strangling the artist to death?
Watching this Violet, we recognize that the force of
repression is no aberration -- it's an archetypal energy equal
in power to the liberation of truth-telling. And the way
Akalaitis pairs Suddenly Last Summer with a staged
version of Williams' short story "The Poet" seems to
track the playwright's vision of artmaking as spiritual quest.
His seekers often look for a direct experience of God in truth
or beauty but usually find it in pain. Williams explicitly
casts Sebastian (and his counterpart in "The Poet")
not as an innocent victim but as a knowing, ecstatic
Perhaps the distinction is
fresh in Akalaitis' mind, after being pitched into the volcano
as Joe Papp's successor. In any case, she takes huge poetic
license with the play -- not interpreting or illustrating
Williams' poetry but inventing her own through
moment-by-moment manipulations of lighting, sound, and
gesture. The jarring pictures, garish colors, amplified
heartbeats, and twitching hands don't fit into a pleasing
metaphorical whole but contribute to a cancerous proliferation
of images that scrupulously avoid Meaning Something. Like that
of fellow postmodern perverts Elizabeth LeCompte and Peter
Sellars, Akalaitis's work doesn't satisfy any conventional
expectations of acting, narrative, psychology, etc. I found
the production at times puzzling, irritating, and (especially
"The Poet") undercooked; many in the Hartford
audience actively hated it. Still, I admired the way
Akalaitis's willful production honored the unsettling open-endedness
of the play.
The Village Voice, November