What I admire most about the Wooster Group is that they never simply put on a play. They take in the full scope of the writer and the creative range of his or her work. In performance, they embody the viewpoint of contemporary theater artisans, finding new relevance in older texts while using multi-media to interpret the work through myriad dimensions. Their revival of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre is no exception, and yet the performance fell short. This late, lesser known work of Williams’ debuted on Broadway in 1977 and ran for just five performances. It was one of the writer’s final plays and one of his most autobiographical, detailing his experience at a New Orleans boarding house during his younger years amid a motley crew of memorable misfits and eccentrics.
The play is fertile ground for a company like the Wooster Group; creating bizarre worlds is what they do well. Veteran company members Kate Valk and Scott Shepherd play two oddballs apiece and they do so brilliantly, but their talents in physical and character transformation seem to overcompensate for a paper-thin storyline.
The play is perhaps the most emotionally naked of Williams’ oeuvre in its honest depiction of a young man exploring his sexual desires for the first time while breaking new ground as an ambitious writer. The individuals we encounter at the boarding house are impressionable on the young writer, and the most unnerving and explicit of his experiences there become the inspiration for his first writing compositions.
But the production needs more substance. The strange universe of the boarding house dominates the play far more than the character we care most about. Actor Ari Fliakos plays the “writer” and believably conveys his awkwardness as an inexperienced gay man reacting to entirely new types of people, particularly men to whom he’s attracted. But we don’t have a tangible sense of who he is. He types furiously on his keyboard, but as the words appear on a screen overhead, they appear to be just words. Verbatim quotes from those in the house and not any sort of expression of his soul.
It’s evident that Director Elizabeth LeCompte is fascinated by the life and work of Williams and the ways in which they coalesce within this play. As a great fan of Williams’ myself, I found a certain pleasure in watching a portrait of the artist as a young man. Yet, sadly, this work – while notably autobiographical – shares so little of the writer’s greatest talents.