KALI FLOWER: “Suddenly Last Summer” 

at Hartford Stage Company


"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 sacrifice.

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 1994

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